A brand is a promise you make to your customers. It’s a hallmark of the consistency, quality, and efficacy of a company’s products or services. A brand is also an aspirational statement – we’ve encouraged brand-makers to ask themselves “Who do our customers want to be?”. A brand at its best both answers and fulfills this question.
But what happens as a brand ages and evolves? As a brand weathers multiple decades of innovation and market variation, change isn’t just an inevitability, it’s a mandate: evolve or risk being left behind. Here’s a look at three brands that have transitioned successfully over multiple decades of existence, with an eye towards what today’s brand-makers can learn from their example.
LEGO Turns a Product into an Experience
For over 75 years, LEGO has upheld its promise to provide the building blocks of creative and imaginative play, outlasting countless toy trends and winning a place in the hearts of customers worldwide. That success is the result of LEGO’s willingness to take risks and boldly reimagine and realign their basic product to stay relevant through market shifts.
Founded in Denmark in 1939, the company started as a maker of wooden toys before perfecting the product we know and love today in the 1950’s. They opened the first LEGOLAND theme park in 1968, taking the first step in the brand’s evolution from providing a flagship product towards providing a larger creative experience. Meanwhile, LEGO’s product expansion continued with a dizzying array of themes and locations brought to life in increasingly sophisticated ways.
Over several decades, partnerships with major imaginative entertainment brands such as Star Wars and Harry Potter kept the brand from becoming stale. Then, when the arrival of digital entertainment threatened to distract their customer base, LEGO responded by venturing into video games and movies, a controversial decision that paid off by cementing the brand into the imaginative consciousness of a whole new generation. By staying true to their promise to provide a creative and imaginative experience, LEGO was able to adjust to new platforms for that experience while keeping their flagship product at the forefront.
Virgin Turns Setbacks into Fuel for the Future
In stark contrast to LEGO’s consistency, Virgin’s Richard Branson has peddled many products through the years while building a strong brand that captures attention at every turn. Its individual products are met with varying degrees of success, but the Virgin brand has mastered the art of progressive evolution and come to represent a promise of aspirational innovation to its followers.
Virgin Records started as a music and media distribution service and grew to become a recording label with a large retail presence. By the time music stores were being replaced by Amazon and online shopping, Branson had long ago diversified in an unexpected direction. He opened Virgin Atlantic in 1984, providing transatlantic flights in direct competition with more established aerospace players before expanding into Virgin Australia, Virgin America, and even Virgin Nigeria – most of which eventually merged with other airlines.
Despite several failed ventures along the way (Virgin Cola?), the Virgin brand remains exciting and newsworthy. Virgin Galactic recently grabbed headlines by completing its second successful test flight of a suborbital spaceplane. As long as the brand continues to resonate with aspirational innovators, each Virgin iteration can look forward to keen public interest.
Amazon Turns a Distribution Platform into a Gold Mine
It’s easy now to forget just how unstable the early years of Amazon really were, and how long it took for Jeff Bezos’ online distribution platform to become the profitable powerhouse we know it as two decades later. Starting with new and used books (due to their low price point), Amazon eventually grew from “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore” to become the go-to online marketplace for everything from A to Z. The initial promise of the Amazon brand – easy access to massive inventory at competitive prices – continues to successfully lure customers away from brick-and-mortar stores.
Amazon’s first major diversification was a partnership with Toys “R” Us to sell its products online in 2000, when customer enthusiasm was strong despite the company’s track record of yearly losses. This began the brand’s expansion into ever greater territory as a marketplace and distribution network. Additional ventures such as the Kindle ebook reader and, later, the Amazon Prime digital video distribution platform continued Amazon’s successful diversification efforts. By building an innovative online marketplace and distribution channel, Bezos’ set the stage for continuous and rapid expansion all while staying true to the brand’s original identity and promise.
Greater Than the Sum of Your Products
The examples set by LEGO, Virgin, and Amazon prove that a brand is much greater than the sum of its products. Whether a brand fades away over time or expands rapidly into new experiences, new media, or new atmospheric heights depends largely on its ability to hold true to its promise to its customers. By delivering this with consistency, quality, and efficacy throughout various stages in its life, a brand can evolve in many ways and build continuously on its initial success.