Both J.C.Penney and Barnes & Noble were back in the business news last week with more stories of corporate tribulation for each.

The general pattern for both brand strategy dilemmas goes something like this:

  • Brand is sliding downward
  • A new person is brought in to hatch a new big idea and lead the new brand strategy and direction
  • New person tries to put the new direction in place
  • New direction doesn’t reverse the slide and makes the slide worse
  • New guy is out amid even more confusion about the brand strategy and direction
  • Board brings back the old person to get the brand out of the mess that the old guy created / let happen in the first place

A couple of quick brand strategy lessons emerge for me.


Brand Strategy Lesson 1 - Ideas are easy, answers are hard

Ideas are easy.

With some focus and using the right creative thinking exercises, you can produce many ideas in a relatively short time. When we facilitate a brand strategy or new product creative thinking session, we often call these “possibilities” because they are so young and fresh and devoid of analysis, it's tough to say they are “ideas.” They may just be fragments of someone's thinking. With more work they can become ideas and concepts, but call them what you will, they are relatively easy to generate.

Real business answers, however, are hard.

We’re talking about ideas that turn into answers that successfully change the course of a business, particularly one that’s failing – those are hard. Because to become a successful answer, the idea SHOULD stand up to a rigor that’s nearly impossible to survive:

  • Analysis
  • Prioritization
  • Resource decisions
  • Tests for strategic fit
  • Customer research
  • Testing and piloting
  • Scenario planning
  • Determinations about related critical success factors
  • Technical analysis
  • Development

All that, plus the idea has to be introduced at the right time strategically by an organization with the experience and wherewithal to pull it off. It has to be resourced adequately, successfully produced and marketed, effectively sold, and executed well so that it delivers value.

And those lists are simply surface level starts at what an idea has to survive to become a right answer.

A brand in trouble doesn't just need an idea guy for a turnaround. A brand needs the RIGHT ANSWER guy at the RIGHT TIME.

And for both J.C. Penney and Barnes & Noble, it seems very possible that the time when even a PHENOMENALLY RIGHT ANSWER could make a difference is in the rear view mirror. When a brand misses the window for its right answer, no matter what the brand throws at the situation, it may very well be it's going to fail. Maybe not right away, but it's probable that no amount of executive chair swapping or brand strategy changing is EVER going to be the right answer anymore.

Brand Strategy Lesson 2 - The Devil You Know Isn't Better Strategy

In both  of these brand strategy dilemmas, there’s a view that the former person is the right answer as a replacement, even though the brand declines started (or at least continued) on the former guy’s watch before the new guy failed to fix it.

The "devil you know" isn't better strategy; it's desperation strategy and smells of unfounded corporate nostalgia. While a board of directors may think "the devil you know" is an intriguing or viable idea, it's tough to believe it will be the RIGHT answer.

See what I mean about ideas and right answers.

Because someone will ask . . .

The previous Brainzooming post was on seven solid lessons in the J.C. Penney social media strategy. So how do these two posts square with each other?

The social media moves J.C. Penney made are absolutely smart ones that any brand should consider. A great social media strategy, however, isn’t going to fix a shaky underlying brand strategy. It can enhance it, but it’s just one part of the brand, not the whole brand. – Mike Brown

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