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When Brands Lose Their Way

By Zach Kliger

The fall from grace has been an essential ingredient in stories since humans first started telling them. Whether it be the fall of man or Prometheus stealing fire from the gods, we have always associated the story of humanity with falling and failing. The most popular stories today continue to echo these rhythms. In sports, we love underdogs: beaten athletes or teams that pick themselves up and do what no one thought they could. In literature and entertainment, the most memorable heroes are often those who started as villains.

Most would probably agree that the climactic moment in the original Star Wars trilogy is when Darth Vader turns his back on the dark side and saves his son from the evil emperor. Through three movies we are following Luke’s journey, so it only makes sense that he should get the moment of glory. But it’s Vader, not Luke, who delivers the final, epic, emotional punch. We care about this moment with Vader so deeply because there is something about his fall and ultimate redemption that speaks directly to the human condition.

Every person will misstep at some point in their journey through life. It’s that conflict and those trials that make the victories so much sweeter. No one wants to read a story about someone who always did everything right and never felt any pain. Not only is it boring, but it just doesn’t feel real or human.

The same truth applies to companies and brands.

Unless you are extraordinarily lucky, your company is going to make a mistake — probably many — as it grows and develops. And yes, there is little doubt that at some point, your business will fall from the path it was meant to be on.

It’s very rare that a month goes by without news of some major company who failed epicly in some respect. Whether it be a toxic culture or a thoughtless commercial, these falls from grace have dominated the narrative in 2017.

Those are just the biggest and loudest examples of companies that lost track of who they are. They are lessons of what happens when the fall is at its most extreme. Chances are that your company isn’t dealing with anything so dramatic, but the root of these problems — a failure of culture and a brand, to audience disconnect, are widely applicable to any company that feels like it has gone off course.

A Failure of Culture

There is nothing quite so deadly to companies as when culture gets off track. A culture failure can infect everything else from retention to work quality to public image. Today, culture is practically synonymous with brand. It’s just as much the reason why people want to buy from you as why they want to work for you.

As businesses grow, it’s easy for culture to get out of control. Uber is a particularly nasty example of what happens when the wrong sort of culture takes over. Without even noticing, your company can become something completely antithetical to what you were trying to build in the first place. Still, the purpose and values that every member of the team internalizes almost always come from the top.

If your company culture took a wrong turn somewhere, you change that by leading by example. Just as it’s important to show, rather than to tell, when you are sharing a story, culture change can’t happen by mandate and command. If your team is unenthusiastic and apathetic, be a nexus of enthusiasm. If the team has lost track of the values that you feel should define your culture, be an exemplar of the ideals you want to see reflected.

If the message comes across, your team will start doing the work of instilling purpose and buoying morale. Just listen and be aware of what they have to say. The same is true if the message isn’t sticking. Staying connected to your team is the best way to ensure that your culture doesn’t get off track.

It’s a lot of work to course correct on culture, but no good redemption story — the type of story that will inspire others — is supposed to be easy.

A Brand to Audience Disconnect

You may not have disastrously miscalculated what your audience wants to see, like Pepsi did, but chances are that you’ve struggled at some point to reach your audience effectively. So much time, money, and energy is spent on audience personas, focus groups, and piles of analytics; but all these guides on reaching your audience lose the thread of what’s actually important: the strategy motivating the tactics.

Companies often start with the product and they look for the audience that it’s supposed to fit. They think of their product and their company as the hero delivering some good to the world when the truth is that the audience must be the hero of the story. Your prospects are at the center, and your product should be built purposefully to help them on their journey.

Start with audience and build from there. Don’t build a product and try to make it fit somewhere. When Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger started out, they made an app called Burbn. It was essentially just a knock off of Foursquare. But by listening to their audience closely, what they found was that the part of the app their audience loved most was photo sharing. They built a whole new product dedicated to that feature and called it Instagram.

I like that story because it’s clear proof that you can do great things when you listen to your audience. Your prospects are the heroes and there is so much value in emphasizing first on who they are and what they want. Every company has something about it that sets it apart — something that it does really well. Chances are that ditching the extra features or products, and going all in on the one thing you do best will put you in the best possible position to succeed. It’s also proof that redemption is always possible. You may be stuck in a rut — trying to stick to the mold and not quite succeeding — but you can always break out and do so much more. Nothing is final and no failure is so total that you can’t grow past it.

It’s okay if your company makes mistakes. That just means it’s human, and there is no doubt that we connect more to brands that feel human. It’s okay to get off course, and it’s okay to be honest about any failures along the way. Those are just the trials that make your company’s journey so much more meaningful. So long as you are dedicated to that eventual moment of redemption, every misstep will just make the story better.

Zach Kliger is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, let Woden help. Read our free StorytellingBlueprint, or send us an email at to discuss how we can help tell your story.