When the much-maligned Nokia crafted a concerted comeback in 2017, the world took serious notice. Its absence allowed the consumer to review and ideally renew the once-entrenched relationship. There are many similar cases of brands finding a fresh lease of life after temporarily withdrawing from the shelves. While most disappearances are a function of unavoidable legislative or corporate factors, their success after relaunch opens up a compelling possibility. The voluntary ‘strategic sabbatical’ is a tool towards sustainable customer relationships.
It would be appropriate to set the context through a few recent examples. The finest certainly being Maggi Noodles which strengthened its legendary bond with urban Indians through a smartly-managed resurrection, not only regaining its earlier stature but arguably strengthening it further. Nokia is in a far better position than when it left, disoriented by aggressive Korean and Chinese competition. Whether the ‘nostalgia strategy’ will work or not is open to debate but at least there is a new energy. Blackberry is reportedly ready for an encore, trying hard to build on its high-conviction customer base. Keventers is now a smart retail brand borrowing appropriately from heritage but re-creating a foundation of stylish modernity.
In a case that is only partially voluntary, the Oberoi Delhi is shut for business for almost two years. This, in fact, is a common practice in the luxury hospitality industry which survives on renewal in experience. Starbucks, in a famous case, shut down its stores in the USA for three hours to re-train its Baristas. The brand certainly gained as a result of this demonstration of customer commitment. After the disastrous first run in India, Marks and Spencer is enjoying a phenomenal resurgence as M&S, with youthful designs and improved pricing. Another case of a clean break-up facilitating a great new friendship.
Arnab Goswami will soon return as the chief ‘migraine’ of Pakistan, all set to scream to record TRPs, emulating a habit of entertainers who disappear from the limelight to conjure new currency. It is usually a reactive action due to flagging spectator interest in the current version. Amitabh Bachchan in KBC is certainly a valuable example of a dramatic rebirth, leading to a fresh wind that is proving to be timeless.
As per all available evidence, brands in serious trouble with their consumer franchise may consider a ‘strategic sabbatical’, especially when conventional incremental measures are failing to do the job -- disappearing briefly from the market as a voluntary act in order to craft an influential comeback. This approach will work for brands that enjoy a strong emotional association with customers who are currently not satisfied by experience delivery. Importantly, they must be part of robust portfolios so that the short-term impact on the P&L does not prove to be crippling. This can also be applicable for certain SKUs as opposed to the entire range. It also works as a robust template to resurrect brands that have been murdered due to portfolio objectives or profitability failures.
In a listing of possibilities, let me start with the very last scenario. When UB chose to make Kingfisher the Prima Donna, it deliberately eliminated Kalyani Black Label, which enjoyed tremendous patronage in eastern markets. By approaching it as a ‘strategic sabbatical’ this brand, with some new news, can be easily resurrected providing ample flanking cover for the lead under pressure of late. Pan Am with a brand new fleet or even Kingfisher Airlines with new-age management can operate credibly under the principles of this concept.
Tata Nano, which suffers from a confused positioning in the market, is a prime candidate for a voluntary disappearance, only to re-surface after one year clearly sorting and renewing its value proposition. Ginger Hotels has struggled to compete with a clear stand in the rapidly changing hostelry market. Shutting down and re-establishing its worth as a functional luxury entity can give this brand long-term legs.
The Statesman newspaper should consider this a possibility to become the Huffington Post of Indian media. TV Media channels belonging to large groups will find this approach useful, especially when market share drops are hopelessly rapid. Peter Scot Whisky, India’s first close-to-scotch brand, enjoys emotional equity not matched by its current franchise. Power Shoes from the Bata portfolio is fast losing relevance but in a rebooted manner can become a leading brand for part-time athletes.
Even brands of relatively lesser vintage can take advantage of this strategy. Imagine Domino’s Pizza withdrawing the declining Pepperoni for the short term only to return soon in fresh livery. Kingfisher Ultra can re-connect with young consumers by the away-and back strategy maintaining its digital footprint as an interim. Jabong can well be made to vanish by Myntra as a precursor to a sharper offering relevant to the overall mix. In FMCG and personal care, underperforming stalwarts can be identified for the scheduled disappearance and equally well-planned comeback.
For a ‘strategic sabbatical’ to work, a few principles must be observed. First and foremost, there must be a significant emotional association between brand and customer, which allows the possibility of a second life in the first place. There must be a physical detachment from the market and not just a seamless re-launch. Brands are like people and absence does make the heart grow much fonder. It is necessary to have an overhaul in the value proposition by either renewing its existing core or building something totally new -- in either case staying true to the emotional foundation of the relationship. The tainted reputation of management can be overcome but a chronic failure in performance is tougher to redeem as opposed to obsolescence and lack of relevance, which are not necessarily a comment on quality.
As mentioned earlier, this is a tough approach for a single-brand company but easier for a robust portfolio where certain high-potential players, possibly in turns, need to be re-furbished for a successful future -- taking full advantage of a valuable customer relationship and blending contemporary performance values to create a provocative proposition. This will be immensely valuable for the M&A scenario where the new owner often struggles to make new-found siblings work as a cohesive team. It is definitely time for the ‘strategic sabbatical’ to become a necessary agenda in boardroom conversations. The lessons from involuntary actions unusually becoming the base for voluntary decisions.
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