Wrong place, wrong time
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Wrong place, wrong time

What makes a leading brand crash and burn? We look at the brands of yesteryear – and what went wrong.

20 years ago, a Friday night might have seen you popping out to your local Blockbuster and grabbing a VHS for a cosy night in. A Saturday might have seen you shopping in town, nipping into Tower Records or Woolworths for a cheap CD from the bargain bin. Even 15 years ago, making arrangements with your mates was easy with your state-of-the-art Nokia phone and listening to music downloaded to your MPMan MP3 player from sites such as Napster was thrilling, if somewhat illegal.

So what changed? Where did it all go wrong for these once-leading brands that seem to have fallen from preminent positions almost overnight?

Well, while it’s true that many big, established brands do go belly-up – despite having huge potential – they often leave behind great legacies. Apple has just been voted the number one cool brand, according to the CoolBrands Top 20. Yet in 2002, Nokia introduced smartphones with its Symbian 60 series. Without this innovation, would Apple have the same dominance with its iPhone that it has today?

The same goes for Napster, the music file sharing service that ran from 1999 to 2001. According to Tim Bax, creative director at digital marketing agency iCrossing, a lot of brands that have disappeared in recent times were just unlucky enough to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“They’ve come to market with an idea that was not quite fully formed, or was ahead of its time, or was just plain illegal,” he says. “At its height, Napster had more than 26 million users worldwide. That was until Metallica, Dr Dre, Madonna and others woke up to the fact that their work was being pirated and shared with impunity – and no reward to them. Its branding was cool, its image was outlaw – but copyright infringement lawsuits ultimately killed it.”

But, thanks to Napster, people started finding new ways to share music. Without it, would there have been Spotify or the Apple Store?

Blockbuster never embraced its true purpose as an expert entertainment provider, says Alex Hamilton, senior strategist at brand design consultancy bluemarlin. “Instead, it saw itself as a retailer. When their core business of rentals began to suffer, they responded by expanding their offer to include items like sweets, popcorn and children’s toys.

“What they missed was creating a compelling consumer experience, imbuing their memberships with additional value focusing on this need. It could have offered expertise and recommendation into their selling tactics.”

And whatever happened to Tower Records? Once a global US$1billion dollar business, it failed to evolve and adapt to an offline world of discounted supermarket distribution and an online world of downloads and piracy, explains Adam Smith, head of media strategy at customer science company dunnhumby. “Tragically, it compounded its own demise, leveraging huge debt to accelerate international expansion of a fatally flawed retail business model.”

Hamilton concludes: “Failing to find a meaningful purpose that dovetails into a fundamental human need is detrimental for a brand. It may seem grandiose, but any brand that cannot find its true north is in danger of getting lost and disappearing.”

Tracey Lattimore is a freelance journalist with an interest in the lifestyle and health sectors.

Tracey Lattimore Freelance Journalist CPL
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