In today’s digitally driven, snap-judgment world, virtually every major product, company or institution has a “brand,” i.e., a popular reputation by which it is known, for better or worse. The strength of a brand today determines levels of consumer support and the ability of political parties and candidates to attract voters (as in “Brand Obama” or “Brand Gingrich”). It also impacts potential for government funding, and even the ongoing quality of media coverage.
Think about this: Both the Mini Cooper and the Volkswagen Beetle are small cars.
However, while significant numbers of people who otherwise want a small car believe that driving a Mini is trendy, smart and a sign of environmental consciousness, those same people wouldn’t be caught dead driving a Beetle.
The Volkswagen Beetle’s brand, once all-powerful, is in a tailspin, and the company is now trying to re-brand the vehicle so that more men will find it an attractive option.
That example demonstrates the power of a brand, and increasingly, that challenge is also being faced by nations, cities, neighborhoods and even, racial and ethnic groups.
Over the past 20 years, or so, China has changed its brand from being a heavily populated but marginally important global player to being seen now as the world’s most important exporter and economic engine.
With that new “brand,” China has been able to create a new, more respected global reputation for itself, including the image of dominant military capacity, whether it’s actually true or not.
Over the same period, African Americans have done an absolutely abysmal job of managing our own brand, and it’s now costing us dearly.
When most people in this country think about the mass African-American population, they automatically conjure up images that include “unemployable,” “uneducated,” “incarcerated,” “irresponsible,” “lack of ambition” and “economically marginal.”
Accurate description or not, that “brand,” perpetuated and enhanced by largely negative media coverage and our own lack of involvement in racial reputation management, has stamped Black folks as a less-valued commodity in the United States. As such, even when we want jobs, people have an excuse for not offering them to us; when we seek political support, candidates, more and more, don’t want to be seen with us publicly.
The “Black American brand” more and more each day, therefore, is creating the new Black American reality.
Even worse, there seems to be no group and precious few individuals today serving as unabashed advocates for building the “Black American brand.”
At one time, while we were still largely poor, we were nevertheless seen as people who could be successfully transitioned into the economy, who wanted to get ahead, and who were capable of making a valuable contribution.
That was during a period when the “Black American brand” was being attentively managed by civil rights leaders, church pastors, elected officials, community activists and business leaders. Today our reputation is being largely unmanaged, and is generally seen as undesirable and fading fast.
Sadly, much like cars, soft drinks, computers, athletic shoes and cell phones, a group or institution with unfavorable brand characteristics will not only be ignored by the marketplace, they can also be so marginalized as to become completely irrelevant. Sometimes in extreme cases, they can even cease to exist entirely.
In that regard, a recent article in Forbes magazine described the results of a public opinion survey which asked participants to name corporate or institutional brands that were most likely to disappear entirely by the year 2015.
The respondents named Eastman Kodak, Netflix, Research in Motion, (the company that produces the previously dominant BlackBerry cell phone), Sears and the U.S. Postal Service.
What led these brands to such a perception, said the respondents, was poor reputation management, including failure to address challenges in their marketplace, a lack of understanding of their true competitive positions and failure to adapt to, and master, the new technological environment.
Most of those named were not really a surprise. It was, however, a bit of a shock to see that Americans are obviously very comfortable with those brands not being in existence at all in the not-too-distant future.
At the legendary Kodak, for example, the handwriting had clearly been on the wall for quite some time. First there was the general demise of the stand-alone camera, which negatively impacted not only Kodak, but also most of its competitors in the old camera business.
Developed in the mid-1990s, smartphones with internal, digital photographic capability have swept the country, and the world, like wildfire.
By 2003, in fact, more camera phones were sold than separate digital cameras; by 2006, half of all the world’s cell phones had built-in cameras, and by 2010 there were one billion camera phones being carried around every day by their owners. Who needed a separate camera?
Maybe consumers also noticed that Kodak hadn’t earned a profit since 2007, that it had stopped developing its own stand-alone digital cameras, in 2009, and that its stock value, while up to a not-so-great 82 cents in trading last week, had actually dropped to 54 cents a share, just three months ago.
Curiously, much like Black Americans, Kodak seemed either not to notice how far it had fallen behind, or even worse, didn’t have the “heart, brains or courage,” to do anything about it. Now America seems perfectly willing to see the brand disappear.
Let’s move, now, to the BlackBerry.
In recent months Research In Motion has among other things announced management changes, layoffs of about 11 percent of its workforce and deeply disappointing results for the sale of its new “Playbook” tablet, which in recent months has been outsold by the iPad at a rate of 19 to 1.
Once the dominant smartphone for business, BlackBerry has fallen from a 52.5 percent share of the U.S. business hand-held phone market in 2009 to 33 percent in 2010, and to 9 percent as of September 2011.
Looks like sooner or later we may not have the BlackBerry to kick around anymore.
Then there was the U.S. Postal Service.
For as long as most of us can remember, USPS has been an institution with an impeccable brand for dependability (“Neither snow nor rain, nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers ...” etc., etc.).
It appears now that the one thing the Postal Service could not deal with effectively was competition. It seems that USPS fell asleep at the wheel and thought that its problems would always work themselves out somehow, just as Black folks in America too often think.
The same e-mail services that have made most Americans’ communications so much easier, convenient and timely have produced complete financial disarray for the Postal Service. According to the USPS itself, mail volume is down an astounding 22 percent over the past five years, producing $8 billion losses for two recent consecutive years.
In response, USPS is proposing elimination of Saturday delivery service, the closing of 3,700 local post offices, and the layoff of as many as 120,000 workers, one-fifth of its total employment.
Postal Service supporters say things aren’t quite as bad as we’ve been led to believe, that their reputation is worse than their reality.
Nevertheless, it seems that most Americans are becoming increasingly comfortable with the fact that the Postal Service’s brand may not be worth saving.
When I think about these institutions and their damaged brands, I do feel a bit sorry for them.
But, what worries me more is, if they had been asked to rank racial or ethnic groups that may no longer be viable in 2015, whether those same survey respondents would have given Black Americans, with their own deeply damaged brand, a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down.”
A. Bruce Crawley is president and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management Inc.