So why was I there? A couple of weeks ago, I did a branding consultation with a very successful West Michigan business. The company started in the early 2000s, when the founder found a way to cleverly adapt an existing product. The process is very labor-intensive and requires some proprietary knowledge to duplicate, meaning that they have no real competitors. The value proposition for clients is so obvious and compelling that the company has never had to put much effort into marketing or branding. They pretty much show up at the client’s office, explain what they do, and the deal gets done. Annual sales have grown by about 2,000% since they launched ten years ago. Everyone’s made a good living, and there’s no end in sight. As the 80s pop song said, the future’s so bright, they have to wear shades.

At this point, their team is unprepared to articulate their brand story in a competitive marketplace. In fact, their brand story at this point is simply their company history: Ten years ago, we invented X, and it’s been a huge success. Client’s have been thrilled. Wanna join them? Their brand is stale. It’s still making them a lot of money because they have no real competitors.

I was there because the founder of the company suspects that it’s time to refresh the brand. He suspects that someone might come along who’s as clever and hungry as he was ten years ago and invent a better mousetrap. The technical or regulatory environment might change, making his one product less viable. And if something like that does happen, his team will be caught flat-footed. I walked them through an exercise where the senior staff was asked to articulate their value proposition without resorting to the stale story. I proposed scenarios: What if a serious competitor came along with a more innovative product? What if the market shifted? How would you explain your brand if it were challenged?

The senior staff had no answers and looked bored. Some of them kept leaving the room to check their messages, to see if they had closed any more sales in the last few hours. They wanted to get back to counting their money, and they all drove away in nice cars. They are great people, but I worry about how vulnerable the are to anyone who would mount a serious marketing challenge. I sincerely hope that their cruise never ends and the grand buffet never runs out, but their ship practically has “Board Me” painted on its hull, big enough for every hungry pirate within a hundred miles to see.

As I said in my last column, you don’t have to spin too much of a brand narrative to sell a bottle of water to a thirsty man. But a run of success can cause complacency. Muscles that aren’t exercised get flabby, and the same is true of marketing skills. Success is awesome as long as it’s happening, but it isn’t always good preparation for more troubled times. Senses get dulled, and you no longer pay attention to threats as sharply as before. Reflexes slow, and you no longer think on your feet or innovate as quickly as before. You’re no longer tuned into the spirit of your marketplace, and your ability to speak into it atrophies. In short, you are vulnerable to any shifts that make your brand narrative obsolete or any competitor that can tell a better story.

All of us could sell more if we’d do two things. First, keep your story sharp, not stale. That takes self-awareness as well as awareness of your market. It also takes creativity and a whole lot of energy and effort. Are you reviewing your brand, and your marketing assets, for relevance and effectiveness every year or two? Second, keep your marketing skills sharp. Exercise those muscles so that if you get challenged you can defend your brand, and your income.

© Greg Smith, 2013

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