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Real-time surgery for broken brands

Updated: Dec 9, 2020

This week I presented a real-time 'choose your own adventure' session at Mumbrella360. The live virtual audience chose one of two 'broken brands' and we used my diagnostic approach to operate on it in real-time surgery. Offered Mitre10 or Target, the audience chose ... Target! Here's what happened.

How do you fix a broken brand? Every marketer faces this dilemma at least once in their career.

The trouble is, how do you know if your brand, product or service is truly broken? Perhaps it’s just a bit damaged, or neglected. We often get so close to our brands that it’s hard to tell. It feels ok to you, but is that what the data says?

I’ve distilled this complex issue into just three simple stages and this week we’ll apply my diagnostic questions to one broken brand you know very well.

But first, a story

Way back in pre-covid times, my colleague Paula and I sketched out this crazy idea for how to fix a broken brand in real-time. It was a pitch for this year’s Mumbrella360 event, hosted virtually last week.

The crazy idea was I’d give the audience a choice of two pre-selected broken brands. Inspired by the memory of choose-your-own-adventure books, we'd have the audience choose one brand and together fix it on the spot. I had to be ready to go either way!

Well, Mumbrella loved the idea, but since then everything changed. The live audience was to become a virtual one. Audible feedback and audience eye contact replaced by scrolling chatter on an iPad. Gulp. How’s this thing going to work? This wasn’t in my script!

Analogy for the real thing

It’s only now, having (successfully!) delivered the virtual experience, that I realised my own journey from clarity to complexity, mirrored the challenges we face with broken brands.

Photography: Zahrina Robertson

We can easily imagine a big brand campaign, large budgets and spend months laying the groundwork for a career defining moment, only for the perfect combinations of a global pandemic, budget cuts and layoffs to come in and wreck everything.

So, what do you do when faced with the cold hard reality of more with less?

Well, glad you asked! Here’s how I tackled the issue during my session.

Step 1: Know what you’re fixing

You can’t fix a broken brand without knowing exactly what you’re fixing. Call me Captain Obvious, but it’s a serious point. The fact is business leaders often have conflicting views of what constitutes “the brand”. Is it the name, the logo, or the idea of what your organisation stands for? Others talk about the importance of a go-to-market strategy. A brand is considered a mere speed bump on the road to sales glory.

My simple definition is this:

That is, your organisation is like a mirror, reflecting the story your customers tell out there in the world. You’re the embodiment of felt needs, desires, aspirations and random impulse purchases.

Importantly, if we understand a brand as a customer story, it isolates the issue. If the brand is broken, it means the customer story is broken in some fashion.

The remedy? Understand what customers are actually saying, and respond in a way that better reflects reality and future aspirations.

Step 2: Know thy brand

For the sake of example, let’s use the brand the audience opted to “fix” during my Mumbrella session: Target.

Why Target? In the simplest terms, it’s losing badly to Kmart. 🤷🏼‍♂️

For years, Target’s Wesfarmers sibling has captured the hearts and minds of customers who love Kmart’s cheap but stylish products and 24 hour convenience.

Our first step in fixing a broken brand live is to get our minds around just three diagnostic questions that represent the brand and its relative health.

For efficiency, I’ve included my personal opinion responses, but feel free to replace with you own if you're familiar with Target.

  1. What’s one word that springs to mind about this brand? Daggy!

  2. What does it believe, or stand for? Cheap prices, but better quality than Kmart.

  3. How could it be better? It’s sorely lacking personality, quirky fun and a sense of adventure. When I was growing up, my mother called it Tar-jhay. It was classic Aussie culture: fun, a little bit classy, but not too serious.

Step 3: Customer feelings

Again, we’re focused on just three questions. Think about your own instant responses - I’ve added mine.

  1. Describe the typical customer? A busy mother.

  2. How do they want to feel? Happy. Life is stressful, budgets are tight and kids always need stuff!

  3. What would surprise and delight them? More name brands at Target prices. They want to feel proud of the clothes and homewares they buy for themselves and the family. Look good, responsibly.

Step 4. Imagine long-term impact

The hottest word in marketing today is purpose. But a brand’s purpose is only useful if it creates long-term, sustainable impact in the community.

So step four is all about thinking ahead and imagining a future world where customers are experiencing the effects of your refreshed, fixed brand.

Back to our three questions:

  1. What do customers value about this brand? They want to be proud. The secret shame is gone!

  2. How do brand and customer beliefs overlap? Customers and the brand want the satisfaction of knowing they are doing good things in the world. Yes, budgets matter and quality cotton clothes. But so does the idea of not exploiting cheap labour overseas. What if Target also took a stand on ethical supply chains and lasting community benefit?

  3. What lasting impact can you imagine? Customer satisfaction and positive word-of-mouth is on the rise. Target has a greater share of voice than Kmart because of its positive message, fresh personality and messaging that reinforces a cheeky tar-jhay vibe.

Step 5. Write a brand story brief

Fresh with all this creative thinking, it’s now time to write a brief for a creative storytelling agency to bring your vision for a restored Target to life.

This brand story brings together your new insights and the first sketch of a creative story that could engage hearts and minds - a type of storytelling I describe in Beliefonomics as the Belief Moment.

We want people to believe in this new brand proposition, not just see our creative work as a cute twist on an old idea.

In this slide from my presentation, you see we’ve abstracted Steps 2-5 above into short answers:

I’d picture the Brand as the “best”. The one Customer emotion is “satisfaction,” and the value created from lasting Impact is the “confidence” to shop regularly at Target again.

All that remains is a creative story that brings it all together. What would I do? Well, here’s a thought.

One of Target’s biggest, most under-utilised assets is its iconic logo.

👈🏼 This internationally-recognised logo can be reimagined to tell a bigger story: customers are in the centre circle, with different stakeholders radiating out in concentric circles: jobs, suppliers, families, communities and people employed in ethical supply chains.

In one creative execution, a three minute highly-emotional mini-documentary takes the viewers from an in-store moment where a customer selects a garment and looks up, smiling to realise it’s a great decision. We see the ethical production of raw materials, manufacturers and suppliers.

We see happy families, connected communities and people experiencing an authentic reality that’s not ignorant of fast fashion. A strong narrative voice and inspirational music tell the story, and a compelling new tagline brings it home.

I won’t tell you that tagline, of course, because I’ve already given Target enough free creative inspiration, but you get the idea!

Did we fix the broken brand?

Well, what do you think? I’ll be the first to say this approach is best viewed as a quick, high-level pass to get people engaged, thinking and excited about possibilities.

Brand research, analysis and creative work is non-trivial and time-consuming. But at the same time, we also need to make it accessible and fun. Brand stories are not fixed quickly when left alone with a few creatives at an external agency.

Just like customers themselves, it’s time we democratised brand strategy and involved more people across departments and stakeholder groups in the creative process. I reckon we could all use a bit more tar-jhay-inspired personality to deal with the inevitable surprises that lurk just around the corner.

Keep believing,

P.S. Ready to choose your own adventure? Let's talk.


MARK JONES is a brand strategist, author and keynote speaker. His purpose is to inspire more people to use the power of storytelling to change their world. Find out more at and subscribe to receive his weekly blog direct to your inbox.

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