Develop a succession line of brand champions

Published in Philippine Daily Inquirer, October 4, 2004

AN OFTEN unrecognized source of a brand’s eventual decline and failure is the lack of a succession of brand champions whose main task is to protect a brand’s equity, forever nurture and rightly grow, expand, diversify or leverage a brand’s strength, while at the very least maintain its dominant market position.

This is because a number of founders of businesses, content with their present portfolio of brand successes abruptly retire from the business they have built without putting in place a succession line of brand champions and mechanisms around their brands.

Two of the classic marketing cases of failure of succession include the New Coke and the Howard Johnson (HOJO) brand of restaurants and hotels.

Coke, in the 1880s launched the entirely new cola category. Throughout the century and into the next, Coca Cola capitalized on its first and original status in most of its advertising campaigns, aptly summed up in a powerful creative expression, “It’s the real thing”. Unfortunately, sometime in 1980s, Coke faced a number of challenges including a pointedly offensive attack from its bitter rival, Pepsi, who mounted notably successful campaigns like the Pepsi Challenge and Pepsi Generation. This was followed by the untimely demise of the Coke brand’s long-time caretaker, CEO Robert Woodruff and was not helped any by a new and mostly foreign-born top management.

Thus, it was not surprising that the management team perceived the battle between the colas to come down to simply product taste preference. This led to the New Coke that made obsolete the original formula. It was like telling the American public that the “original real thing” was not the real thing after all. And that was when Coke sales really began to flounder. A month after the announcement of the New Coke in April 1985, the soda company received a daily average of 8,000 negative phone calls. When Coke management decided to bring back the old formula and relaunch the Coke Classic in June 1985, it got 18,000 friendly phone calls a day.

In July 11, 1985, at a press conference, then CEO Roberto Goizueta had to admit, “We have heard you.” Its COO, Donald Keough went on and said, “the passion for original Coca Cola and that is the word for it, passion was something that caught us by surprise … a wonderful American mystery, a lovely American enigma.”

Pepsi’s CEO, Roger Enrico, in his book, “The Other Guy Blinked,” succinctly remarked, “I think by the end of their nightmare, they figured out who they really are. Caretakers. They can’t change the taste of their flagship brand. They can’t change its imagery. All they can do is defend the heritage they nearly abandoned in 1985.”


The Howard Johnson’s restaurant chain and family hotels was one of the best known and successful American franchises in the post war era with over 400 restaurants and motor lodges visible with their bright orange roofs along America’s roadside. At the height of the brand’s success in the 50s, Howard Johnson Sr. abruptly retired and decided in 1959 to leave the business in the hands of his 26-year-old son, Howard Brennan Johnson. The same year that the elder Johnson turned over the organization, J. Willard Marriot Jr. hoped that the business he would inherit from his father would be successful
as HOJO’s.

Two decades later, Marriott Hotel had surpassed Howard Johnson by more than seven times. J. Willard Marriott Sr. had indoctrinated his son and rightfully passed on the brand’s core ideology over time. On the other hand, the brand of Howard Johnson restaurant chain and motor lodges coasted in the hands of its young successor, eventually being sold off to the Imperial Group PLC of Great Britain and then passed on to another set of new owners. Today, it is owned and managed by Hospitality Franchise Systems. Hopefully it is on its road to recovery.

This article lists some ways of developing a succession line of brand champions and mechanisms.

Develop the brand’s mission and core ideology. Every brand must have a charter that summarizes its identity, its reason for being, as well as unique value proposition, purpose and mission while not excluding personality and core values. A good brand charter has a well-defined personality that guides the marketing execution and communication of the brand. This means describing in a separate, short paragraph the brand as if one were describing a real person. If the brand were to come alive as a person, who would it be, would it be like, who would it talk to, who would its friends be, etc.

The brand, 3M has a precise brand mission statement captured in its brand charter, “Innovative and practical solutions from a diversified technology company.” Thus, the company’s products that include post-its, abrasives, adhesives, etc. while seemingly diverse have relevance in the brand’s product portfolio when evaluated against the brand charter.

Marlboro has a well-defined brand personality statement that has helped the brand transcend restrictions to its product and enter new markets and categories like men’s clothing and accessories. Its brand personality statement reads,” Marlboro is a fullflavored cigarette that imbues strength, masculinity and independence and represents the rugged individualist of all times who is not afraid to stand alone.”

Begin with your employees’ buy-in. One part is to have the brand charter. The second part is to institutionalize, lie and re-live the brand charter. Much of marketing is externally directed to customers in the so-called business or consumer market. Most fail to recognize the customers within, the internal market comprised of employees and other stakeholders including the new recruits. Sustaining a brand’s success is the hardest part but this can be overcome if there is a buy-in from the employees. Sell the brand inside is the motto of successful marketers. And they begin with the all-too excited, all-too happy new hires that listen enthusiastically to the brand’s stories.

Disney has a rigid succession mechanism and indoctrination program that does not stop at the regular employee orientation of company rules, policies, benefits, etc. All employees attend a Disney Tradition orientation seminar where the vision of its founder Walt Disney, his most famous Disney characters and the ideology behind the brand are shared in videos, history and mythology. Disney publications including annual reports use Disney language – where else can you find words like dreams, imagination, fun and magic mixed with conventional business terms like return on investment, plant facilities and capital? Winning new and old employees’ buy-in to the brand is the best advertising an organization can ever have.

Foster a work environment that understands and loves the brand with a
Nordstrom does not pay lip service to a brand charter that says that the number one goal is to “provide outstanding customer service.” Nordstrom has institutionalized its brand charter by recognizing and rewarding Nordies who have rendered heroic customer service. Among the stories include a Nordie who ironed a newly bought shirt for a customer who needed it the same afternoon, a Nordie who made a last minute delivery of party wear to a frantic hostess, etc.

Build the mechanism for great mentors. Companies that develop a succession line of brand champions have present leaders who respect and recognize talent and expertise; encourage employees’ creativity and learning. These leaders are confident about their skills and expertise while acknowledging their weaknesses yet they are not afraid to surround themselves with people who have the strength they do not have. They are not autocratic, but are servant leaders, selfless in sharing their knowledge, are team players and real-life models who encourage and inspire down-line success. Bruce, Jim and John Nordstrom, encourage their employees to do whatever it takes to fulfill their
brand charter to make a customer happy, There is only one Nordstrom rule: provide outstanding customer service. Each Nordie enjoys operational freedom to make a customer happy within the Nordstrom yet without the impractical, insensible restrictions that deter the brand mission.

Build a culture of creativity. A company that aims to develop a succession line of brand champions has a succession mechanism that encourages a healthy discussion and dynamic interaction of where to take the brand. Along with this is the speedy support of great ideas regardless of the source. This means, that no one person railroads the discussion. A lot and more of the whys are raised rather than what and how. Deep, critical, experimental and creative thinking is encouraged. Great ideas are acknowledged and rewarded. 3M’s culture of creativity and innovativeness is grounded by two of its many mechanisms that reflect the brand charter. These two mechanisms are the 15 per cent rule where employees can spend as much as 15 per cent of their time on personal projects. This encourages experimentation and unexpected innovation. The other is the Genesis grant that allocates $50,000 for an employee to develop prototypes and do market tests.

Sustain a culture of learning. Companies with a succession of brand champions encourage continuous learning. People are not viewed as machines nor an expense but great assets and resources that must be continuously nurtured. Organizations with a culture of learning prioritize their employees learning and allocate substantial man-hours to further their employees’ prowess. Their OD experts understand that continuous learning is key to leveraging their people and consequently, differentiating the company’s brand.

Today, in this knowledge economy, the learned companies realize that key to protecting the equity of their brand and guaranteeing further streams of profit is to have a roster and long line of brand champions that are nurturing caretakers. Competitors can copy products, match prices, raise their share of media spending, etc. but it takes a longer time to build a succession of brand champions. One must begin with a visionary leadership and a culture that believes that people can make, build, grow and role model brands.