Our perceptions of brands are always changing. Even the most well-known ones don’t exist in a vacuum; consumer trends, the actions of competitors, and your own new product releases can all influence consumers’ constantly shifting perceptions — tipping the scale in either direction.
One moment your brand can be the talk of the town and loved by its target audience — but then a new trend becomes popularized by a celebrity influencer or a competitor releases a new product that makes yours look tired and old-fashioned by comparison. In a flash, that popularity has been replaced by negative brand associations — what was once cool, affordable, stylish, and convenient might now be considered outdated, of low quality, unfashionable, or even bad for the environment.
The tasks of brand managers and marketers is to identify what perceptions are holding a brand back and then work to dispel them, replacing them with ones that entice new customers or build lasting relationships with existing ones. But what happens when your brand picks up a truly unsavory association? Or if it outgrows associations that once made sense for its business model but no longer work for the present?
What must brand managers and marketers do to shake their brand free of unwanted associations?
It’s no easy task, but there are some tried and tested brand maneuvers that can be undertaken to get your brand back on track — each one more vigorous than the last — depending on how severe your negative associations are. We’ll explore exactly how each process works, what their strengths are, and include examples of how famous brands managed to shed their unwanted associations.
A Note On Brand Tracking
Before we go over the processes for removing unwanted brand associations, we need to cover how these insights can be accessed in the first place. In order to reposition your brand and pursue positive associations that will help grow your business in the right direction, you need to listen to consumers.
All of the “maneuvers” below demand that you have a means of finding out how consumers perceive you and your competitors — nothing should be left up to chance. This way, you can clearly understand what changes need to be made to your brand identity to help unstick it from negative associations.
There are numerous ways to track a brand’s health and performance, from social listening to tracking brand mentions, but we believe that the best way is to use a brand monitoring software like Latana’s.
With Latana, you can delve into the perceptions of different demographics, while also tracking brand awareness, understanding, consideration, and preference over time — seeing whether you’re activities are shifting the needle in the right direction.
With a tool like Latana’s, you can find out which demographics hold those unwanted associations of your brand and see how they feel about your competition, too — providing a clearer picture of what needs to be done to set things right.
So, with that taken care of, let’s begin.
1. Listen & Learn
Unwanted associations don’t always appear overnight. While scandals do happen for many brands, improving associations will likely be part of a regular brand housecleaning regime rather than a response to your brand’s darkest secrets being made public.
By constantly keeping tabs on your target consumers, you can gauge when perceptions are changing and figure out ways to make improvements. You can achieve this through the use of brand tracking software, your own customer satisfaction surveys, or a combination of both in order to capture the most detailed understanding of how your brand is being perceived.
A competitor releasing an exciting new product is a great example of where this type of strategy could work. Your brand is untarnished and is working pretty well, but the market has presented new challenges that need to be addressed. Research will allow you to gauge how consumers have reacted to the changes and should point you in the direction of the best response.
You might have a new product in the pipeline to smash the competition or just want to remind your target audience that your tried and tested solutions can sometimes trump showy new features.
Case Study: Microsoft vs Apple
Microsoft and Apple ads demonstrate this dynamic perfectly. As the evolution of Apple into a computing superpower redefined how consumers thought about their devices, Microsoft was forced to speak differently about its brand in order to remove negative associations. Now, consumers were treating computers like fashion accessories, and put plainly, Microsoft had a deeply uncool brand.
The company has worked long and hard to remove this association. Still, as its ad for Surface Pro 4 demonstrates, it has also worked to bolster other associations with the brand to offset the negative ones that came from comparisons with Apple’s sleek, modern, and trendy products. In this case, it highlights its increased processing power and wider range of features.
2. Refresh Your Brand
Even the best brands can sometimes find themselves cornered. This might happen quickly because of a scandal — or slowly, as the result of several failed attempts to turn the tide. Negative associations may be causing some real damage and putting consumers off your brand and, in these cases, a brand refresh can be the perfect remedy.
It might be tempting to completely reinvent your brand, but this should only really be done as a last resort. Not only are rebrands expensive, but they’re also risky for the consumers who’re still engaged with your brand — such big changes could break down their emotional connections too, leaving you in a worse position than before.
So don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Mixing things up to dispel negative brand associations can be a great way of showing consumers that you have listened and that you’re addressing their concerns.
Case Study: McDonald’s
A great example of this is McDonald’s, a company that has consistently refreshed its brand, again and again, to neutralize threats against its dominance of the market. In 2004, with the release of Super Size Me, the brand was forced to address some very existential concerns.
The Morgan Spurlock-directed documentary shined a light on McDonald’s role in America’s health crisis and, as a result, the fast-food giant found itself attached to some really unwanted associations.
It wasn’t just that the brand’s unhealthiness was front of mind for consumers but that the burger chain actively encouraged customers to go larger, offered poor alternatives, and seemed to do little to protect consumers from the effects that overconsumption of its products could cause.
These negative associations had a direct impact on sales and forced the company to address things quickly. Their brand refresh was used to quietly retire supersized portions and introduce a wider range of menu items such as salads and fruit bags. Campaigns were launched with a question mark in the place of the famous golden arches logo to suggest that they were breaking the mold and reinventing themselves.
A key part of this process for McDonald’s was to make sure their reinvention stayed true to what their brand already meant to loyal customers and understand what needed to change to help remove negative associations — while also making sure positive ones were not stripped away in the process.
UK Cheif Executive of McDonald’s at the time, Jill McDonald, described how the brand sought to navigate its way out of the mess it had found itself in.
“Absolutely number one is get closer to your customers and get superior insight, that's a real competitive advantage. Then, invest in what is going to make the difference to them and what is going to drive additional visits”
3. Fix Major Issues With A Rebrand
Though rebrands shouldn’t be undertaken lightly, there are some good reasons for giving your brand a complete makeover. Sometimes a scandal can prove so damaging to a brand that there really isn’t any choice but to go back to the drawing board and create a new identity.
In 2019, Volkswagen rebranded itself creating a new look and feel, alongside “a range of models intended to usher in a “new era of climate-friendly mobility”. Though this is partly a reaction to changes in the automotive industry, it can also be read as a means of addressing the damaging emissions scandal that rocked the company in 2015.
But there’s another scenario when rebranding makes sense, too, and that’s when a brand grows out of its old identity — such as a startup or a challenger brand finding itself as an industry leader with a global audience. For these, the character of their original branding may feel too independent, alternative, or unprofessional and no longer matches the ambitions of the brand’s next steps.
Case Study: Airbnb
An example of this scenario is Airbnb, which rebranded in 2014 to reflect its newfound position as a mainstream travel brand rather than a plucky startup. Before this point, they’d been relying on an image that had been somewhat cobbled together as the brand developed — and though it had served them well, it lacked the holistic conceptual completeness that many large scale brands possess.
Indeed, as co-founder Joe Gebbia puts it, the puffy white letters that represented the brand’s early years “were created in a matter of hours, for a short deadline, and only for temporary use.”
Airbnb enlisted the assistance of DesignStudio to help them redefine their mission and take the brand to the next level — ditching the old look for one that helped set their service apart from the rest of the travel industry while creating a sense of professionalism and trustworthiness.
Executive creative director at DesignStudio, James Greenfield, outlined the philosophy of the rebrand. From his point of view, until that point “the brand had been focusing on the practical of ‘what’ the company did, but the ‘why’ needed to be part of the story and to give reasons for people to believe in it”.
This resulted in a new, sleek user experience that focused on the possibilities that Airbnb offered, a new font, and even a new symbol that summarized the lofty ambitions of the brand. Representing “people”, “places”, “love” and, of course, Airbnb — the bélo helps guide consumers to a range of associations that resonate with the brand and its mission.
Picking up unwanted associations with certain segments of consumers is inevitable — you can’t please everybody. But, brand managers and marketers need to know how their brand is being perceived by all manner of audiences to decide whether changes in perception need to be addressed or not.
The difference between good and bad brand associations isn’t always black and white, either. In many cases, it can be more about what fits than a simple question of positive or negative — what has worked for your brand in the past might just no longer be suitable.
Think about BrewDog, which embraced a punk image in the past, but has now attempted to distance itself from such associations after allegations of toxic work practices and the brand’s growth to an industry leader. No one is saying that a punk brand is an objectively bad idea — indeed, for BrewDog, it played an essential role in differentiating its products from the competition.
By listening constantly to consumers, brand managers can learn when associations are starting to lose their positive effect and find effective methods to help their brand to ditch the old and embrace the new.