When your brand wakes up in the morning and looks in the mirror, what does it see? If you’re like many companies today, you might be looking at a brand comb over.
Brand comb overs operate much like their real-world counterparts. When a company is self-conscious about how they are perceived, they attempt to cover up their insecurity with a thin layer of marketing hair. But the “solution” only makes the matter worse. And to the casual observer, nothing is truly hidden.
Fundamentally, comb-over marketing occurs when a brand tries to be something it’s not. Every time Microsoft tries to be cool, Comcast claims to be customer-centric, or Walmart appeals to fashion, the world snickers at their thinly veiled balding head.
Companies, like hair, come in every shape and size. The lucky ones show off their styled cuts for the rest of us to envy. But most will experience “balding” sooner or later. What separates good companies from the best is how they deal with their weaknesses. Below are three steps to turn your company’s “balding” into a strength.
1. Know thyself.
Before you can fix your comb over, you have to first admit you have one. While most professionals have a general sense of their company’s strengths and weaknesses, few collectively identify and codify them.
Some companies have enough humility and perspective to see things clearly for themselves, but many find it difficult to view themselves objectively. In these circumstances, look to the customer for an honest evaluation. Customers will have no problem describing what’s wrong with your company, and a quick survey will collect 95% of what you need.
Coca-Cola’s recent “Happiness is Movement” campaign is a rare example of the iconic company losing sight of itself and the customer’s point of view. Developed by agency McCann, the campaign encourages healthy living through non-traditional stunts like installing a pedaling system into a taxi. The only problem is that we all know drinking a can of Coke is the farthest thing from healthy. I’m sure the campaign is just a slight misstep for the otherwise masterful marketer. But for the time being, Coca-Cola is sporting a nasty brand comb over.
Take the time to understand why your company excels in certain areas and falters in others, then openly discuss your company weaknesses among leadership. You’ll find it surprisingly refreshing and a healthy first step towards overcoming insecurity.
2. Find the strength in your weakness.
Once you clearly understand your company’s vulnerabilities, list them out and begin determining why your weakness in one context is a strength in another.
Are you geographically remote? No, you’re romantic and exotic. Does your company feel disorganized and random? No, you’re filled with free thinkers imagining tomorrow. Are you unable to lower costs to meet competitor price points? No, you focus on quality and scarcity to add value.
Avis’s iconic “We Try Harder” ad campaign is a perfect demonstration of strength in weakness. In 1962, Avis was the second-largest car rental company in America struggling with annual losses. The normal course of action for a company in this situation would be to focus marketing on some new product feature or even mimic the largest player. Instead, Avis avoided comb-over marketing by taking a stand. Avis launched a campaign with the now famous tagline “When you’re only No. 2, you try harder, or else.” Within a year, the company had turned significant losses into a profit. They continued the campaign for the next 30 years.
Have you ever wondered why men with comb overs are scorned while men who are fully bald have an easier time? The difference comes down to commitment. Comb overs represent vulnerability, a lack of authenticity, and an inability to choose between two worlds. But you have to really own it if you’re going to use a razor on your head and go all the way.
Knowing your comb over is cheesy and that it’s time for a change is a lot different than actually shaving your head and embracing who you are. It takes a certain mix of guts, vision, and discipline to stand for something, and only the strongest companies see it through.
What would the world be like without companies like Apple, who stood against the status quo, Geico, who dared to inject humor into insurance, or Dove, who took a moral stance against an entire beauty industry?
If you’re able to take an honest look at your company’s vulnerabilities, find the strength in your weakness, then commit to it, you might just be on your way to company growth and a successful hairdo.
But if you insist on hiding your weaknesses behind a thinly veiled brand comb over, just remember, we can all see what you’re trying to do.
Jonathan Lewis is partner, Vice President and Strategy Director at McKee Wallwork + Co. Advertising, winner of the 2015 Ad Age Small Agency of the Year SW and Campaign of the Year awards. Jonathan’s firm specializes in turning around companies who are stalled, stuck or stale, publishing two books on the topic including When Growth Stalls and Power Branding. Follow Jonathan @JonathanLewis11.
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