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It's a question restaurateurs should be asking themselves following the death of Steve Jobs, whose name and persona will be forever inseparable from the Apple brand.
I knew he was so seriously ill that he'd resigned as CEO of Apple, but Steve Jobs's passing still came as sort of a shock. I mean, was it possible that an individual so iconic, so much larger than life could really die? Answer: apparently so.
As tributes to Jobs's life and accomplishments played in the national media after his death (on CNN, it was practically a continuous loop), so did questions about the future of the brand he'd built. Could Apple continue to pull down double-digit sales increases without the imagination, ingenuity, exactitude and uncanny marketing genius of Steve Jobs?
In his understated Levis and black mock-turtlenecks, Steve represented the epitome of cool to Apple apostles (full disclosure: I've been one ever since I booted up my first Macintosh). He "got" creative types and gave them the digital tools they craved. He was the anti-Gates, the guy who was about creativity first, and then business.
So now that Steve's gone from the helm of Apple, will the company slowly (or quickly, even) lose its unique brand identity of totally hip awesomeness? Will it gradually recede into the homogeneous, figurehead-less masses of electronic device developers? Without Jobs's magnetism and natural showmanship, will Apple fanboys still glue themselves to the company's product intro videos on YouTube with rapturous awe normally reserved for GoDaddy ads?
It's ridiculous to think that any CEO, however charismatic, could just step into the huge leadership space that Steve Jobs occupied. It would be incredibly naïve for any executive to try. Which leaves Apple with an intractable question to answer: How can a brand adapt to the loss of someone who gave it the force of personality without doing possibly the dimmest thing any company could attempt do (not that countless companies haven't tried it): pretending force of personality didn't have anything to do with the brand's success in the first place?
This conundrum is not exclusive to consumer goods. It can be an issue for any organization whose brand is built around a well-loved, larger-than-life personality. Including restaurant chains.
Conveniently, the day after I chose the topic for this blog, USA Today published a brass-tacks interview with the new CEO of Wendy's, Emil Brolick. In his questions to Brolick, the reporter did not mince words about the long-term impact of Dave Thomas's death in 2002 on the Wendy's brand. He noted that without Thomas's combination of folksy likeability and steely inflexibility about quality and differentiation, Wendy's had lost its brand vision. To his credit, Brolick frankly agreed. In his own words, "The consumer senses that this is a brand that lacks clarity."
The recent ad campaign for Dave's Hot 'N Juicy burger line featuring Thomas's daughter Wendy has sought to restore some "Dave-ness" to the franchise. But I'm not convinced that the ads don't do more harm than good. Wendy's stilted screen presence and forced joviality simply remind the viewer that "this ain't her pop's burger stand."
If, as he says, Brolick's goal is to reestablish the franchise's brand position as "a cut above", it will take more than nostalgic harkenings to the days of Dave.
The Wendy's story should be cautionary for any restaurateur who plans to sell the concept to a third party or who merely concedes that this vampire stuff is silly fiction and nobody lives forever. Because one of the kindest things you can do for your brand is make sure it will outlive your involvement.
I'm not talking about choosing a succession team. That's the easy part. I'm talking about a creating continuity team. This is the hard part because the continuity team involves every company employee down to the guy who refills the toilet paper holders. And it first requires a brutally honest hardcore assessment of brand attributes and objectives.
Note the operative phrase "brutally honest." Know that you will not get brutal honesty from your executive team or your rank and file employees. Not because they're not honest but because they're not objective. Neither are you. If you insist on insisting that you are, you thereby prove yourself wrong. So there.
Find an outside branding organization that's experienced, proven, trustworthy, and most important, comfortable to work with. Have them find out what your concept is about. Have them distill these findings to your brand essence and start wafting that around to every corner your organization until it's as natural to people as the air they breathe.
If the experts find that your concept is all about you, you have some work to do. Unless, of course, you don't care what happens to the brand when you're no longer around.
If you do want to leave a legacy brand, your experts will need to find out what it is about you that makes the brand work. This may feel like a trip to the shrink, which may feel very weird. But once the pros know how you make the brand tick, they can put in place a defined branding program and provide you with an implementation strategy that will create your "continuity team" and allow the concept to keep growing without you.
For some restaurateurs making themselves irrelevant to the success of the brand is the hardest thing ever. But it's essential. And it does have rewards. F'rinstance, you may finally have time to figure out all the functions on your iPhone. Don't forget to thank Steve Jobs for every one of them.
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