Early-stage and mid-stage growth brands play a critical role in the long-term health of food and beverage companies.
Does brand, however, somehow define the product?
The modern discipline of brand management organizes firms into brand teams designed to manage a strongly branded portfolio. The larger the revenue is and/or the more market share dominant the brand is, the more the brand begins to overshadow the product in the culture of decision making.
Elaborate brand architectures get built on top of the product portfolio, especially if it is operating in a heavily commoditized category. In planning meetings, then, invariably the question becomes: How would it affect the brand?
Favoring this emphasis of brand over product overlooks the root cause that led many of today’s market-share-leading legacy brands to the situation they currently face: sitting on the brink of decline and irrelevance.
While marketing and branding play an important role in the growth of any consumer-facing business, it is very easy, in retrospect, to ascribe an unfair share of credit for a food product’s eventual success to its brand.
The key to breaking through this assumption and managing a specific product line accordingly is to understand the layers of meaning and experience that a branded packaged food contains.
Putting Brand in Its Place — The Role of Brand in the Product Life Cycle
Year after year, the largest of food and beverage companies spend lavishly in support of their legacy brands. And years of our ethnographic research have taught us to question the deafeningly silent implication behind all of this effort: that brand is always a top purchase driver and the engine of growth. This would seem to be so obviously true in CPG marketing, it is not worth questioning. The problem is: it isn’t.
What our ethnographic research has found consistently is that brand is actually one of many symbolic layers of experience affecting both trial and repeat purchase in consumer food and beverage brands. In today’s more complex, sophisticated food culture, brand is now critical only in specific stages of the product life cycle, namely what we term the mid stage and the late stage. But it matters very little in the beginning and not too much in the end, either (if the brand was helping much, the business would generally not be collapsing).
What has caused many legacy food brands’ growth to stall and/or reverse itself in recent years is that the symbolic elements surrounding the food (i.e., the product symbolism) are fundamentally undercutting the business in a way that no advertising campaign or brand renovation can ameliorate.
This is especially the case when a brand has an iconic flavor/texture among heavy users that is simply anchored in the past. In these cases, the symbolic elements of the product and sensory experience cannot be easily changed without alienating the brand’s fan base. So, even as loyalists cling, albeit in smaller and smaller numbers, there often can be no real way out.
Coming to terms with this role of brand and the legacy role of outdated product symbolism is critical in distinguishing between brands that are capable of renovation in their product symbolism and brands that most likely are victims of an iconic arrangement of product symbolism anchored to a prior era.
Go in-depth and learn more about the role of brand in the product life cycle and download free copies of Hartbeat Exec:
As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.