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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 August, 2004, 16:50 GMT 17:50 UK
How long is a brand's shelf-life?
by Ben Richardson
BBC News Online business reporter

Chocolate bars in a vending machine
Are top brands becoming stale?
In the dog-eat-dog world of branding, products often die young, and the old are dispatched without compassion.

To catch our attention, companies have to spend millions of pounds each year honing their image.

Biscuit heavyweight KitKat this week became the latest brand to get a makeover, its slogan tweaked to appeal to a more modern consumer.

It is unlikely to be the last, as the consumer marketplace becomes ever more crowded.

Trimming down

Unilever is one of the world's biggest players and owns the rights to household favourites such as PG Tips, Marmite, Findus, Birdseye, Cif and Domestos.

During the past four years, the Anglo-Dutch company has taken a knife to its operations.

You may drip feed one brand to keep it alive and stunt the growth of another that has more potential
Trevor Gorin of Unilever

The number of brand names under its control is tumbling from1,600 at the start of 2000, to 400 by the end of this year.

Some have been sold, others merged. Elizabeth Arden was offloaded; Jif became Cif; and washing powders Surf and Radion were blended.

Even a company with sales of 10.8bn euros ($13bn; 7.1bn) in the last quarter has to ensure it does not spread limited marketing resources too thinly.

"You may drip feed one brand to keep it alive and stunt the growth of another that has more potential," said Unilever's Trevor Gorin. "It's a fine judgement."

Say goodbye

In the past few years, the company has taken some drastic steps that still prompt letters from disappointed shoppers.

Shoppers in London
Consumers are proving more willing to switch brands

Remember the PG chimps who starred in television ads over a number of decades?

The loveable apes, seemingly inextricable from the PG brand, were dropped for plasticine birds.

But according to Mr Gorin, Unilever gets just as many letters applauding the change as it does lamenting it.

"Branding is all about looking forward and moving ahead," he said. "You can't afford to be complacent, saying that just because it worked for 20 years it is going to work in the future."

Slam dunk?

Nigel McCrea is one man who knows all about the difficulties companies face when they try to revitalise themselves.

The 56-year-old former Nabisco and Danone executive last year bought the rights to one of Britain's oldest biscuit makers, Huntley & Palmers.

A brand is only a brand if it engenders some sort of emotional reaction in a consumer; if it lives in the mind
Dan Parkinson, head of consultancy at Mountainview

For Mr McCrea, the firm's background was one of the things that tempted him into trying to resurrect it a decade after it had collapsed.

"As far as brands go, this has a very honourable, a very long history," he explained to BBC News Online.

"But you have to tread quite a fine line between giving people the nostalgia they want and at the same time being up to date."

One problem is that we don't always buy the name that trips most easily off our tongue, or sends us on a stroll down memory lane.

A lot of our shopping decisions are down to emotional responses about how we see ourselves and perceive a product.

Basket case

What you buy says a lot about your personality.

Naked shoppers in London
Shopping may be an emotional experience, but there are limits

Are you a lover of designer labels, or do you prefer to go unnoticed in off-the-shelf products?

Do you drive a 4X4 because you need the traction or because you like to see yourself as trailblazer - even on the school run?

"A brand is only a brand if it engenders some sort of emotional reaction in a consumer; if it lives in the mind," said Dan Parkinson, head of consultancy at marketing firm Mountainview.

The key to reviving or repositioning a brand, Mr Parkinson explained, is deciding whether people have "fallen out of love" with it or whether it is still relevant to our lives today.

Otherwise, this is one time when the end of a relationship really may mean being left on the shelf.


SEE ALSO:
Pressure still on Unilever sales
28 Jul 04  |  Business
Coca-Cola is world's 'top brand'
23 Jul 04  |  Business
M&S voted Britain's 'top brand'
16 Jul 04  |  Business
Branding boosts 'beautiful game'
11 Jun 04  |  Business
Stretching brands until they snap
31 May 04  |  Business


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