Brands in Memoriam 2013

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made a spectacular impact recently when he went on 60 Minutes the day before Cyber Monday and gave us a glimpse at the future—a fleet of small delivery drones he branded Prime Air. It was a bold statement, and whether intended or not an incomparable public relations move that got much of the nation talking about his online retail company at precisely the most important time of year for consumer purchasing.

Yet I might be in the minority thinking that was not the most interesting thing Bezos talked about on television and in the zillions of video clips that got sent around the digital world in the days that followed. What I latched onto in the Bezos appearance was this little exchange with Charlie Rose:

Jeff Bezos: Companies have short life spans, Charlie. And Amazon will be disrupted one day.

Charlie Rose: And you worry about that?

Jeff Bezos: I don’t worry about it ’cause I know it’s inevitable. Companies come and go. And the companies that are, you know, the shiniest and most important of any era, you wait a few decades and they’re gone.

Charlie Rose: And your job is to make sure that you delay that date?

Jeff Bezos: I would love for it to be after I’m dead.

Well, if Jeff Bezos who is currently sitting on top of the business world knows that sooner or later his company is toast, I think that is about as telling a tale of creative destruction as I can imagine! With that, here is this year’s short list of additions to the Dead Brand Graveyard:

BlockbusterBlockbuster: Aptly named for its status as the big bust of this year, Blockbuster is a sad loss for me. Harken back to the early days of video home rental and there were thousands of mom and pop stores in neighborhood strip malls. It seemed inevitable that these shops would fall victim to industry consolidation to achieve buying power and scale where margins were thin, and Blockbuster came to rule the day. My experience of Blockbuster was that it somehow held onto that mom and pop feel of a local video store, and at least where we rented they always were friendly, helpful, movie nuts, and the checkout line moved pretty quickly. Then as VHS gave way to DVD, along came the startup Netflix to reinvent the space, and Blockbuster went to sleep. By the time they woke up and decided that Netflix was onto sometime with their mail order subscription programs, Netflix was already reinventing itself as a digital distributor, and Redbox had figured out how to pick up the kiosk business with zero personnel vending machines. Blockbuster was two generations behind the innovation curve, and when Dish Network bought Blockbuster ostensibly as a storefront competitive tool in its battle with DirecTV, it was too little cavalry too late to justify the ongoing operating costs.

Current TV: It is hard to argue that Current TV ever acquired much momentum as a brand unto itself, although it’s hard not to draw a certain amount of attention when one of your masthead investors is former Vice President of the United States Al Gore, coming off a nail biter contested single state vote count that almost made him President of the United States. If you poke around the web for remnants of Current TV’s brand strategy, it was to be something like a news network for ages 18 – 34, where much of the content would be user-created, uploaded to a destination online site, and then curated for television cable audiences. I think the notion that I have to say something like denotes that the ill-formed brand strategy never got much resonance, which might have been reinforced when the strategy suddenly shifted to hiring high-profile former ESPN star turned MSNBC darling Keith Olbermann—at a big salary, with even bigger expectations. The concept of building a line-up around a tent pole Olbermann anchor also never resonated, so when Al Jazeera America came knocking with a monster payday for the founders of the 60 million subscriber reach network, it was an easy call for our former VP to call it a win and walk off the field. Not surprisingly, Olbermann went back to sports.

MetroPCS: Remember when we could look forward to airwaves of virtually unlimited choice and price competition due to the wonders of telecom deregulation? No, you forgot, too? MetroPCS is another brand that probably didn’t leave behind a lot of emotional longing with customers, but it is interesting to note that its founding dates back to 1996 and it came to position itself as a carrier with unlimited wireless communications for a flat fee and without an annual contract. The company was a pioneer in 4G LTE rich communication services, and with more than 9 million subscribers grew to become the fifth largest carrier in the United States—both good reasons for it to be acquired by T-Mobile which cemented its position as the fourth largest carrier in the nation. Still feeling good about all the many companies out there fighting hard for your smart phone bill?

What are the key takeaways from this year’s exit crop that might inform a Bezos-like objective of bolstering your brand to outlive your own era? First, speed is everything in the digital age, rest even a millisecond too long on your laurels and it will probably be too late to catch up with that company that leapfrogged you (Blockbuster). Second, a confused brand strategy results in a confused product strategy (and vice-versa) and swinging at that with pricey tactics doesn’t clear the confusion (Current TV). Third, an undifferentiated commodity without sufficient scale will not stand solo long in a consolidating market (MetroPCS).

Last year in my Brands in Memoriam post I went out on a limb and called Blackberry dead. I took a little heat for that, what I probably should have said was RIM (Research in Motion), the holding company for Blackberry was dead, and Blackberry was on deathwatch. Honestly, I feel okay about calling Blackberry dead, to me it’s spiritually dead, and while some loyals are still pounding thumbs on their mini-keyboards, it’s hard not to believe the clock is tick-tick-ticking to Final Jeopardy on this one. Slammed by creative destruction and inexcusably poor management—a very tough critique because it was a visionary company much beloved that lost vision—it is today a zombie brand at best.

Going out on less a limb this year, I don’t think I would be alone in calling for grave concern around the survival of Sears, J.C, Penney, and Radio Shack. I will climb out a little further and hope that Dell finds a fruitful path soon, as it is hard to believe the PC or laptop business is on the mend, or there is much room on the shelves for another flavor of tablets or tablet/keyboard combos. U S Airways is also likely to evaporate when its merger with American Airlines is completed. I hope I am wrong about all of these because we are talking an awful lot of jobs at risk in our too fragile economic recovery if we lose any let alone all of these. Let’s hope management is inspired with some leapfrog ideas for reinvention and revitalization.

Did I miss any for this year or in the near term gun sights of creative destruction? Feel free to chime in below and add your assessments, predictions, and prognostications. Just remember, if you tiptoe out on the limb, forward judgments of demise have an excellent history of being proven wrong!

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Brands In Memoriam 2012

Frequent readers of this blog know that I am obsessed with the concept of creative destruction, the intangible but daunting market force where an invention that is vital takes out that which has become defunct, and the nascent replaces the established. For those of you just stopping by, you will find any number of mentions of creative destruction as you page through my posts on innovation—it represents for me all that is true and real in deploying creativity to survive in business, perhaps best captured in the title of Andy Grove’s definitive book, “Only The Paranoid Survive.”

As a result of creative destruction, every year we add more once significant names to the Dead Brand Graveyard. Recent memory had us bid adieu to such iconic enterprises as Palm, Saab, Lehman Brothers, Zenith, Compaq, Borders, Circuit City, Ritz Camera, CompUSA, Mervyn’s, Friendster, Tower Records, Polaroid, and Kodak. I polled my network on Facebook for suggestions to include this year and got way more than I could include in a single blog post, many of which could be argued are still on the bubble; some have already quietly jumped the shark, others are still operating as near zombie brands, not yet coming to terms with their imminent vaporization. I invite those dear friends who offered their suggestions to include them in the comments below—as well as anyone else who can see what is certain to end badly—as internal politics and stagnating ideas cause those who should know better to obscure the mandate of leadership.

Here then are my top label farewells for the current calendar year:

Continental Airlines Logo Circa 1940sContinental Airlines: As a result of the merger between United and Continental, the marketing folks did the right thing and picked one brand to make it easier to find your tail logo on the runway. Was anything really lost if this was just a merger? Ask the people (like me) still stuck flying United—yeah, the customer experience did the impossible and took another plunge. If you aren’t 1K at this point in your frequent flyer status, melt down your Premier Card, there are so many top dogs in the system the rest of us matter not, kiss upgrades goodbye. Choice on routes? Funny how the routes and times keep getting de-duped. It’s ironic that an industry that flies you around in the sky at 500 mph and largely invented the modern loyalty program today can’t come up with more clever ways to achieve growth than eliminating its own competition—plus five extra inches of leg room, baggage checks, and those yummy inflight box lunches are now upsells. The parade of eliminated airline brands welcomes another, while customers fume with rising prices and deteriorating service. Hard to believe this is a path to long-term health and improved profits in a backbone industry our economy needs to thrive.

Fresh & Easy: This expansion into the USA didn’t go so well for UK grocery titan Tesco. Any ideas why? Been in one? Okay, that’s a good start. Here’s another—where was the segmentation analysis? Same prices and quality as the giant American supermarkets like Safeway, but a smaller footprint and thus fewer shelf offerings. Same footprint and attempted laid back environment as Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, but no real upscale inventory warranting premium prices or nice people to kibitz with you at checkout. No meaningful differentiation to be found, and small parking lots, too. Ready made portions for young working professionals weren’t a home run in a market with as much choice and variety as ours. Head on competition with Wal-Mart—which can operate at scale near 3% net income while it’s strategically expanding in the grocery category—was a capital-intensive bet inclusive of acquiring real estate and building new stores, a tough play requiring far-ranging commitment and vision to warrant the pain. Without either, Tesco cut its losses and retreated.

Newsweek: This one is spiritually sad for us old school hard news and analysis junkies, except that I cannot remember when I last touched a copy of this magazine, even in a dentist’s office. Bought in 2010 from The Washington Post by audio magnate Sid Harman for $1 and assumption of the losses, ostensibly for sentimental reasons, it was then merged via IAC with The Daily Beast and put under the direction of star editor Tina Brown (there’s a cost saving measure, huh?). Circulation and ad rates for the print version of Newsweek never regained momentum sufficient to cover costs, so this year we heard announcement that the print edition is ceasing. Can Newsweek digital-only survive as a differentiated masthead next to The Daily Beast? Can you imagine a good reason to continue two separate editorial teams? Can you imagine the same editorial team producing two presumably different publications? Have you tried to sell display advertising lately for vertical online editorial products? And just what is a News-Weekly in the age of internet microsecond breaking info copy? At 79 years on the newsstands and in mailboxes, Newsweek had a good run, it just stopped evolving.

Hostess: It seems obvious to many that the sub-brands of 85-year-old Hostess will live on post the uber bankruptcy, and there will be some snack distributor out there continuing to put Twinkies, Ho-Hos, and Ding-Dongs on grocery store shelves everywhere (other than Fresh & Easy, see above). The master brand is likely to die with the corporate entity, as executive management was unable to make a deal with the labor union representing the workers who made the Twinkies, Ho-Hos, and Ding-Dongs. So 18,000 people lost their jobs because no deal could be reached between managers and workers? I don’t think that’s the whole story. Try a balance sheet too weak to support internal investment after emerging from a prior bankruptcy with private equity imposed debt and mounting unfunded pension obligations. The real culprit in my mind—you got it, thinner margins and declining market share due to lack of innovation. Hostess management—now asking for bonuses in liquidation—failed to bring relevant new products to market in a climate where obesity and diabetes became part of the vernacular. Wonder Bread may have been the greatest thing since… whatever came before it, but not in a world of seven grain all natural high fiber baked fresh daily, sliced thick and thin or not at all, your choice.

Blackberry: I am going out on a limb here, calling the magnificent former high-flier from Research in Motion dead even though launch of a new platform has been loaded into the cannons for ignition. Why do I say it’s gone with two new Blackberry’s rolling out as soon as next month? As noted in the Wall Street Journal last week, “Consulting firm IDC recently estimated that RIM’s share of the global smartphone market stands at 4.7%, down from 9.5% at this time last year and from more than 50% in 2009.” Sorry, but when a company has less than 10% of the market share it had three years ago, I am not sure how you could classify a recovery as anything more than a dangling lifeline. What went wrong? Ever try to use the Blackberry browser? There is no word in our language of which I am aware to adequately modify the word slow. With an extremely late to market touchscreen interface, where was the incentive for app developers to develop apps? Those of you who know me know my devotion to the thumb driven analog keyboard, but when I tossed it in for an iPhone 5, I knew the rest of the thumbers were coming too.

There were a number of brands suggested by my colleagues as sighted on death watch, but I’ll let those opinion makers chime in themselves and go out on their own limbs as I did with Blackberry. I have my suspicions about who might be on deck for next year’s list, but I will keep those sealed for now in a paper envelope so as not to publicly curse them or too soon embarrass myself for being wrong. Some in the soon to be gone circle I still like and am hoping for a comeback, though not many.

I think I may make this an annual feature. History would suggest I won’t have much trouble coming up with a list each year. Why chronicle the abdicated? Creative destruction is permanently embedded in our business culture, and even the greatest company can be gone in a single product cycle if customers aren’t understood to be our ultimate boss. With constraints on distribution forever less a moat and abundant technology a ceaseless path to increased consumer choice, business leadership requires nimble execution, unending responsiveness, and gracious humility to constantly win anew customer loyalty. It’s a lesson we all need front and center to do our jobs honestly and well: Innovate quickly or die.