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  • Matt Arnold

The Shelf Life of a Brand

My uncle and communication scholar, John Cragan, taught me that without a theory, you can’t tell a fact from a non-fact. A theory, likes a framework, reduced chaos and can provide a sense of clarity. A theory provides a lens to view the universe of phenomena in a meaningful way. Cragan, along with Don Shields, extended the work of their mentor Ernie Bormann as they developed Symbolic Convergence Theory (SCT). SCT gives us a frame to see, understand, explain, and predict symbolic phenomena and human behavior.


We can see the symbolic phenomena of symbols and their organic nature as they live and die among teams, tribes, and communities. SCT provides a way to understand brand behavior (meaning, motive, identity, and emotion) parsimoniously. A brand is a rhetorical vision or symbolic drama that brings people together in a common symbolic reality. The brand symbols we incorporate to organize and drive action have a shelf-life.


Brands are like a living organism with a predictable life cycle. The life cycles of brands can be extended if you know what buttons and levers to use to adjust and frame the vision within your customer base. The brand’s power and reach become viral and spread, or it can die out. Through science and art, you can extend the efficacy and longevity of your brand. Brands may become inoculated against other visions or susceptible to collapse when alternate visions become more compelling. Some brands can burn out in a day of 24-hour news and social media; others may last centuries. Regardless of how long the rhetorical vision lasts, a lifecycle has five stages:


  • Consciousness Creating—The vision is created.

  • Consciousness Raising—The vision is raising awareness and building links.

  • Consciousness Sustaining—The vision is kept alive and must defend against competing visions.

  • Decline—The old vision is being replaced by another vision (similar to Rogers’ work on diffusion of innovation—the innovation replaces or disrupts the old vision).

  • Death—The old vision implodes or dies and has no currency in the symbolic marketplace.

Rhetorical Vision as Context

Every UX designer and brand strategist should know the life stage of her brand, including its symbolic currency in the marketplace and where it resonates with or is seen as valuable by customers.


Five-Stage Example: Digital Content

  • Consciousness Creating—Digital delivery of music and movie files could create new opportunities in entertainment and create “loss-less” reproductions. Physical media players and stores ignore or openly mock the innovation.

  • Consciousness Raising—Storage becomes less of an issue and processing speeds improve on playback devices. More customers see the potential use and value in converting to MP3s and software like iTunes. Digital delivery gains ground but is not an immediate threat to existing delivery and sales models.

  • Consciousness Sustaining—Manufacturers of physical media players try to extend feature sets (e.g., switching from DVD to Blu-Ray) and stores try to reinforce the value of having a physical copy of content over the convenience of digital.

  • Decline—Fewer media production companies commit to physical delivery, fewer computers have optical readers, and fewer customers spend time in record and video stores. A vinyl splinter group revises a limited set of physical media as a niche product.

  • Death—Local and national record and video rental chains close for good.


Where your brand resides in its life cycle should set the context for your design decisions and delivery. Several strategies can extend the life of a rhetorical vision. They include:

  • Artistry—The extent to which storytellers continue to hold the attention of (and inspire) others by making an emotional connection that moves the audience to action. The symbolic cues and memes that can be usefully and appropriately invoked to play on a larger theme and evoke the desired response are part of artistry. Coca-Cola’s desire to teach the world to sing or Nike’s just do it campaigns, help anchor the spirit of the brand in our lives.

  • Here & Now—The extent to which a rhetorical vision is grounded in the here-and-now reality of its participants. Do the symbolic cues fit into the day-to-day lives of its customers? The life cycle may be governed by a law-like structure, but the ephemeral grounding can make it tangible for an audience. This includes understanding the “pains and gains” for your audience and the emotional and symbolic job of your product.

  • Inoculation—The extent to which a rhetorical vision is protects itself from competition.

  • Novelty & Redundancy—The extent to which a vision is both refreshing and affirming. How every new Batman movie participates in the existing dramatic structure of Batman’s story (redundancy that does not violate the spirit of the genere) but also introduces new elements that keep the story from being the same story over and over again (novelty) is what this strategy is about.


Dunkin’ Donuts vs. Krispy Kreme


Photo Credit - Igor Ovsyannykov

Looking at the competition Krispy Kreme had with Dunkin’ Donuts a decade ago. The prevailing theme from the financial press in those days about Krispy Kreme was that through its IPO and aggressive expansion strategy, Dunkin’ had been knocked on its heels. Krispy Kreme positioned its core product, the donuts it made, at the center of its promotion strategy with “Hot Now” bright red lights to let customers know when fresh donuts were available. You could even watch as the donuts were fried and slathered with icing. A word-of-mouth campaign further built Krispy Kreme’s cult-like status. It seemed like nothing could stop Krispy Kreme. Many in the financial press were mocking Dunkin’ Donuts for being stale as their day-old donuts. Krispy Kreme was a Wall Street sweetheart.


And then, in early 2004, the Atkins Diet swept the United States, and carbs became killers, especially those in the forms of breads and sugars. The “Hot Now” product was seen as carbs covered in carbs—so hot it was radioactive. In 2004, Krispy Kreme had its first quarterly loss. The company was struggling due to the number of shops it had opened, especially those in the suburbs that could not rely on foot traffic or impulsive, on-the-go purchases. “Hot Now” also lost its symbolic value when Krispy Kreme donuts could be found in gas stations and on Target shelves. The product-centric product was too much out of context.


Meanwhile, Dunkin’ had been more conservative in its growth than Krispy Kreme and had been positioning its coffee across its franchise locations and for home use on store shelves. You weren’t going to Dunkin’ Donuts for a donut, you were going for coffee. Dunkin’s multichannel strategy included selling and promoting their coffee on store shelves, and their tag, “America runs on Dunkin’,” reinforced the importance of a caffeinated start to one’s day. Dunkin Donuts’ coffee would not be a victim of the Atkins pressure. Meanwhile, Dunkin’ Donuts had also been playing up neighborhood connections. The company continued to grow. As of today, Dunkin Donuts’ market cap is about $3 billion greater than Krispy Kreme, and the company has fared much better against the Dow.


Let’s compare these two brands symbolically to see how customers, the market, and their positioning led the companies to where they are today.


Symbolic life cycle—Both companies were over 50 years old, but Krispy Kreme had less brand recognition across the country. In the early 2000s, Krispy Kreme was in the consciousness creating phase. Dunkin’ Donuts, long a nationally recognized brand, was in the consciousness sustaining phase. Ten years later, Dunkin’ continues to be in the consciousness sustaining phase, but Krispy Kreme is at risk of decline; after a recent uptick in its stock, the company could even slip beyond decline to implosion.


Here and now phenomena—Krispy Kreme’s central product came to symbolize an unpopular diet. This fate (or trend) did not prey on Dunkin Donuts to the same extent.

So, what can you learn from the paths trod by Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Donuts? If your brand is newly created or gaining steam, focus on awareness and trust. If instead of emphasizing their product, Krispy Kreme had Connected more broadly with a spirit of helping your day started or getting through the day, perhaps they would have been less susceptible to the nascent trend of avoiding of carbs


If on the other hand your brand is sustaining, you need your design and customer experience work to “shield the committed”—to keep your customer base and build for incremental growth. You need to help your current customers, inoculate against competing visions, and turn your customers into return customers and give them the tools to assist you in helping you extending the brand, as advocates and evangelists for your product or service.


Finally, If the vision for the brand is fading and in decline, you need to design and innovate to rebuild and reposition the brand. How might your brand reframe itself in a way that extends its perceived value in the marketplace? If you and the company is unable not innovate, the most design work there may be left to do is on your résumé and portfolio.

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