Can Any Brand Keep The Spark Alive These Days?

 

I flew on Jet Blue recently and it made me sad to realize how humdrum the experience had become. Where had the magic gone? I recall how beloved the brand was when it first launched 20 years ago.

 

That sad flight made think about several other brands I was besotted by when they first launched. It made me wonder why brands can be such knockouts and steal our hearts only to disappoint us a few short years later.

My Jet Blue flight to Palm Springs was 6 hours long so I had plenty of time to reflect on the nature of my brand infatuations. Besides Jet Blue, I’d also fallen head over heels for Uber, Tesla, Facebook and even Duane Reade (whose revamp was one of the very best I had ever seen). How could these brands have been so hot and heavy with me and then fizzle out so completely after a few short years?

 

Here’s a quick recap of my brand love affairs – from initial flirtation to full-on relationship to the moment I decided to call it quits.

 

Jet Blue (launched August 1998)

Everything about Jet Blue was a game-changer. It was cool and techie and friendly. I remember booking a flight specifically to check it out.

  • Their website was amazing. You booked your own flight online! That was not the norm at the time. Very futuristic but friendly – they had taken a page from Apple on how to make tech approachable.
  • The planes were brand-new and offered individual TV screens for each seat with a whole series of streaming TV shows – and news that was live!
  • The flight staff was extremely friendly and funny.
  • They served blue corn chips as a nod to being Jet Blue which I thought was brilliant!
  • Their terminals were new and had the coolest stores, restaurants and prepared foods.
  • All aspects of the experience was more trend forward than other airlines.

So what happened?

  • They had a limited number of destinations and fewer flight departures than the majors so I ended up flying them less often.
  • They were often more expensive than the competition.
  • In NYC, most of their flights departed from JFK which made it more of a hassle and more expensive to get there.
  • Over the years, their planes aged and while those TV screens were once a hot commodity, wi-fi was what we wanted not TV and Jet Blue didn’t offer wi-fi until 2017 (but it is free now I believe).
  • Hiring some of those comedic flight attendants sometimes also didn’t work out with some turning out to be alcoholics or mentally unstable. Pilots were also occasionally found to be flying while intoxicated.
  • Overall, based on this last trip to Palm Springs, I know I’m not crazy in love anymore.

 

Read on below for more examples of brand love gone awry.

 

Duane Reade (Revamped in 2010)

 

 

Duane Reade was one of the worst drug stores in NYC. The stores were an absolute mess, dirty and smelly. In 2004, they were bought by Oak Hill Capital Partners and immediately ran up lots of debt.

  • In 2010, Duane Reade was sold to Walgreen’s for $1 billion and a remarkable transformation began.
  • From interior design to new lines of snacks and portable foods (the DR Delish line), and a beautifully designed household products line called Apt 5.
  • Some stores even offered growler stations for on-tap beer.

We brought in a New York agency [CBX] that is expert with private brand image and packaging design, and understands the quintessential New York shopper,” said Joe Magnacca, chief merchandising officer of Duane Reade. “CBX helped us communicate and connect with New Yorkers through a unique product voice.”

  • Things ran beautifully for a few years before going off the rails. Money, or lack of it, was the problem.
  • They stopped renovating stores and those that had been exemplary, started to look downtrodden.
  • They started closing stores – over a dozen so far in NYC. Other stores are moving to a much smaller footprint (6,000 – 8,000 sq. ft rather than the typical 10,000 – 15,000 sq. ft).
  • And once again, stores are looking a bit messy.
  • Also, they are gradually being rebranded as Walgreens.

 

Uber (launched in NYC in 2011)

Uber felt like a miracle when it was first available in NYC. Such a great app, clean cars, interesting drivers, cashless – just hop in/out – no need to dig around in your purse for money.

  • For me, Uber went downhill based on high cost of most rides – and the occasional very grumpy, anti-Uber driver (the worst one being in Des Moines).
  • But the nail in the coffin for Uber was when I got introduced to Via (NYC only). At that moment, my relationship with Uber (at least in Manhattan) was over.
  • Via is so much less expensive than Uber – not only is it now my preferable way to get around town by car, it’s  replaced the subway for many of my trips.
  • Via feels a bit like a cheap date (more like an airport shuttle than a black car) but I will gladly walk a block to pick up my ride for a $5 fare vs. Uber’s $30.
  • That said, I am still an avid Uber user when traveling.

 

Tesla (founded in 2003)

I mean whose heart did not race a little faster at the first sight of that beautifully designed, and magnificent feat of futuristic engineering, that is Tesla.

  • I would bet my bottom dollar that there is not a single marketing deck on innovation that does not have a page or two dedicated to Tesla.
  • And then, it all went South because Elon Musk went crazy.
  • Having read Ashlee Vance’s book on Musk, none of this behavior is a surprise but to see the company jeopardized in this way is sad.
  • I would not want a Tesla at this point – the brand is tainted by Musk’s insane behavior.
  • I have no confidence that Tesla will be around for the long term.

 

Facebook (founded 2004)

When I first got on Facebook , I absolutely LOVED it. It was the center of my universe for everything from art openings, new restaurants, to connecting with friends.

  • Facebook’s relationship with me soured when it started to be filled with ads and people used it to push their political likes/dislikes.
  • And, of course, all the shenanigans that FB has been involved with does nothing to make you feel warm and fuzzy about it.
  • I’m using it in large part as a platform for The Opinionator and to have dialogue with friends about the topics I’ve written about.
  • Over the last year, I’ve noticed a handful of friends have completely severed their relationship with Facebook. I’m not ready to go to that far yet. I still see it as an essential way of staying up-to-date on what friends are doing.

 

Bottom Line.

It’s increasingly hard for a brand to keep the spark alive. That secret sauce  that keeps relationships vibrant over a long period of time has always been a bit of a mystery.

But brand relationships are under attack from all sides. The magic and the initial attraction is dissipating faster, things are getting predictable sooner, money is tight and corners get cut (and we notice!). Sadly, the brand’s guardians start to take us for granted and the thinking goes that “good enough” is good enough. But it’s not.

Even brands as esteemed and popular as Apple are increasingly failing to meet expectations which is eroding our relationships with them. Whole Foods is another one that many of us were madly in love with but is not the same brand since Amazon took over.

At the end of the day, I know we consumers are a tough bunch to consistently “delight” – especially when we all have apps at hand that let us swipe right and left on hundreds of eager new brand loves.

Relationships are hard!

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