The Lifecycle of Brands

Brands with longevity go through seven ages from inception through expansion, acquisition and decline, to revitalisation, say Giles Lury of The Value Engineers and Sean Davey of Pollitt & Partners. Marketers need to recognise how these steps for brands differ from products/services and adapt brand strategy accordingly.

While the notion of a product lifestyle is well established, brands are more than a single product or service. As such, they exist to manage long-term value and are not superseded or replaced, but rather they have the potential to be eternal. However, this does not mean that brands don't evolve and go through various ages.

Looking back on the 'lives' of numerous brands across different categories, it is possible to identify the seven ages of a brand's life. Not all brands go through all the ages and some do indeed die, but the majority of brands will, at some point, have to address the challenges and opportunities that arise.

Let's have a look at the seven stages of a brand's life cycle:

1. Inception

Like a baby, a brand is born.   The birth of a brand is an exciting time for a brand, for its owners and, hopefully its customers too.   This stage is fraught with practical challenges.   The task for brand owners is, primarily, to survive this phase. From business-oriented aspects such as production, distribution, logistics and cash flow to more emotional factors such as the design of the brand's identity.  The best approach to addressing these needs varies based on the specifics of the business, but the internet is filled with resources and guides, it's never been easier to get started than now.

Choosing a name is often the part of starting a brand that is most like having an actual baby.  It'll be difficult, the search for the name that's 'just right' will result in many a debate and draw from innumerable sources until you find the name that's in the goldilocks spot and it sticks.

For the cash-strapped startup, students are often a very cash efficient way of developing your first brand image.   The first identities of both Nike and Body Shop were created by students.

2. Acceleration

The next age is often one of growth, learning and development. As awareness and sales grow, they bring with them more logistical and practical challenges - from scaling up production, to the recruitment and training of new employees.

In marketing terms, it is a time when major companies review and refine the offer, fine-tuning it based on performance to date. For entrepreneurial businesses it is also a time to professionalise their marketing.

A new or revised brand identity is often developed. For some, a first foray into more conventional paid-for marketing communications are in order, often with the assistance of an agency.

With increased size comes more responsibility and risk for many startup owners. No longer is it only their livelihood that is at stake but also that of those around them - a pressure that often encourages them to undertake larger, more formal, research for the first time.

3. Competition

The third age is one in which bigger, established players begin to recognise a newcomer as a potential threat. Challengers have usually had these competitors in their sights all along, but it often takes reasonable scale and traction with consumers for category leaders to pay attention.

The implications for the challenger brand are to define or refine why customers should choose you instead of their traditional choice.

This may not be, and in fact is often unlikely to be, a real point of difference but rather a point of distinctiveness.   Be it in the way you treat your customers throughout the sales process, after-sales care or a deeper focus on sustainability.   Ensuring your point of distinction/difference is clear to your customers and in the brand's marketing strategy is key to success.

Being inventive with your marketing and how you use your budget can multiply the effects of your marketing efforts.   As with everything, the bigger the risk, the bigger the potential payout.

4. Expansion

When a brand is born into a market, there is initially significant scope for growth, however, with time, successful brands will begin to reach the extent of its home market.  It is in this situation that a brand reaches the age of expansion.   This can be a movement into new countries or into new categories.

International expansion: There can be some tension when adapting a brand to cater to a new market whilst all the time maintaining cohesion.   Different cultures, customs and tastes are a potential minefield for a brand that doesn't do its research.

The importance of doing your research cannot be understated lest you follow in the footsteps of KFC's unfortunate entrance into the Chinese market where the famous 'Finger Licking Good' tagline was translated as 'Eat Your Fingers Off'.   The trick is in the word 'coherent': simply replicating what was done in the brand's home market is a path to failure. A good example of this would be to compare the menu from McDonald's in the US with that in India. You won't find much beef on the menu in Mumbai.

Products and services may need to be adapted but still remain true to the brand philosophy, its core beliefs.

Brand extension: Brand extension is about unlocking growth, not undermining equity. A simple checklist for any brand extension boils down to the simple Could, Should, Would.

Where could your brand go?

Review your brand equity and identify alternate future visions your brand could pursue. These should build on current core values which connect with consumers and can boost their engagement with new extensions.

Where should your brand go?

When it comes to extending your brand, ideas often aren't the problem. Ensuring there is a structure, strategy and, above all, an established vision should not be overlooked. Ensure the opportunity fits your brand and you assess any alternatives before leaping in, it's better to take your time and wait for another opportunity than it is to extend into the wrong area and damage your brand.

How would it enter that market?

Having identified categories or markets you want to enter, the next step is to work out how to introduce your brand into that market in a way that is distinctive and true to your brand's vision whilst offering a tangible benefit to consumers.

5. Acquisition

Many brands will either be an acquirer or acquired at some point in their lifetime. The larger of which often lead news bulletin headlines.   The US$66 billion merger between pharmaceutical giant and biotech leader Monsanto is the most recent to come to mind.

There are generally four approaches to the acquisition of new brands: keeping the brands separate; one brand subsumes the other (Vodafone replacing brands like Three); two brands merged and rebranded (Carphone Warehouse + Dixons = Dixons Carphone); existing brands collapsed and a new brand created (Orange + T-Mobile = EE).

In addition to needing a new identity, mergers and rebrands of this nature can present a challenge in terms of retaining and engaging customers. Firstly, customers need to be reassured that they are not going to lose out. That their relationship with the new brand has improved, not been disregarded. This often leads to the creation of new products and offerings, but more importantly the use of the brand's emotional vision to cement positive sentiment.

But it's important to not forget about the people who are at the heart of a brand – the staff.  Ensuring there is a clear vision for the new brand can create a rallying point for the staff and ensure that the culture of the new brand sets off on the right foot.

6. Decline

Across their lifespans, there will be periods when brands decline, according to Giles Lury's 'How to Revitalise a Brand' there are a variety of causes for this:

  • If your brand is neglected, lacking the constant care and cultivation it needs, it can become tired and age prematurely as its appeal and equity dwindle away (Ski).
  • When the brand is abused, overextended, or when the focus is put onto sub-brands, products or variants at the expense of the parent, then the scale and speed of deterioration can accelerate (Trivial Pursuit).
  • A new kid in town. Sometimes the sudden and maybe unexpected arrival of a new player can leave you looking old and tired before your time (Blockbuster).
  • Natural disasters. When something beyond your control happens, the paradigm can shift and leave your brand behind or floundering (BP).
  • When the business or part of the business does something that sabotages the brand's reputation (Volkswagen).
  • Being spoilt. Can you have too much of a good thing? Sometimes too much attention can lead to constant small changes but a lack of focus and direction, which can ultimately mean your brand gets lost (Dulux).

All of which can mean your brand needs to enter the seventh age.

7. Revitalisation

There are at least as many strategies to help turn things around and revitalise your brand as there are reasons for its decline in the first place.

Going back to your roots is a well-used approach and highlights the longevity of big brand ideas. It is often used when time and events have slowly caused a brand to move away from its original purpose and intent. Taking time to do a bit of brand archaeology and reassess the relevance of your purpose and philosophy at this point can pay real dividends. A relatively recent example would be British Airways' resurrection of its 'To Fly. To Serve' motto.

Sprucing up a dated image is another popular route.   A refreshed look may include a redesign to make a brand more contemporary but combining this with advertising to reinforce the brand's identity and brand proposition strengthen its effectiveness.

Teaming up with other brands is another way to revitalise a brand.   Collaborating with a celebrity or other company is a very popular option in the fashion and retail industries where brands can be revitalised by a 'celebrity injection' from a personality or famous designer. A great example of this is H&M's collaborations with high-end designers such as Balmain.

Even if you don't seek out a partner, a bit of celebrity endorsement can go a long way in finding and developing a new target audience. In July of 2007, supermodel Kate Moss was spotted at Glastonbury wearing a pair of chunky, black, knee-high rubber boots by Hunter.   The photo spread like wildfire and kick-started a push towards a younger and more fashion-conscious crowd for Hunter.

Another option is seeking out a new benefit or usage occasion to promote.   Baileys revitalised itself when it went 'over ice'. At other times you need to add something new to the offer.


More difficult, but highly effective is finding a way to put your brand back out in front. This means not just catching up with, but actually finding a way to leapfrog, the competition, by innovating and taking control of the agenda in your category. This technique is famous in the telecommunication and technology spaces, with large annual events being used to tout new innovations.

Perhaps the most radical - but necessarily infrequent - approach to revitalisation is for a brand to get a new purpose. Disruption from competitors and market trends can precipitate the need for a new direction - a new raison d'être.

Having argued about the potential for some brands to be eternal, the last revitalisation strategy for those brands that do die along the way is to be reborn. Brand resurrection is when a brand is brought back from the dead and given a new lease of life. A famous example is Polaroid.   After the original Polaroid company declared bankruptcy in 2001, it's brand and assets were sold off and the 'Polaroid' branding now adorns all manner of photography products.

Not all bands will live forever, but the strongest have the ability to do so.   They will develop and change throughout their life but unlike the products and services that they carry, they do not have a set lifecycle. The task of marketers is to guide the brand through its life, encouraging its growth whilst never losing sight of the vision at its core.

Source: Branding: The Seven Ages of Brand - Giles Lury & Sean Davey, WARC, November 2016