November 2, 2018

In restless markets, brands are starting to follow consumers rather the other way around. That’s not just good for staying relevant, it is often a matter of course for long-term survival.

Case in point: Fast food giant Arby’s just announced it plans to carve into its roast beef image and sell healthy sandwiches. It’s an effort to reach younger consumers, many of whom did not grow up with positive feelings about beef. It’s new tagline, “We have the meats … For sandwiches” will be used to promote a 17-sandwich menu, none of which feature beef. The campaign is thick with irony and features new spokesman H. Jon Benjamin, the voice of popular animated series “Archer and “Bob’s Burgers.”

Arby’s CMO Rob Lynch said that the revamp is an effort to stay relevant. “Arby’s has the second-oldest customer base in the QSR industry and we didn’t want Arby’s to grow old with that customer case,” he said.

In a similar move, earlier this year IHOP announced it would emphasize its burgers instead of pancakes.

Both are examples of maximizing “brand permission” — strategic decisions that either position familiar brands in ways that challenge consumer expectations, or place familiar brands in unfamiliar settings. Besides IHOP and Arby’s, we’ve also seen this happen with brands like Starbucks, which now operates shops within grocery stores, or Bank of America and Capital One which now operate full-fledged and upscale cafes at some of its locations.

In many of these cases, brands are following the lead of consumers, either literally or figuratively. This work when the brands already have a strong foundation of values that are irrefutable. Look at Virgin: The company established what it stood for first and then applied those values to a variety of industries, from airlines to music. If the foundation is believable, and consumers perceive it as real, then the brand can go anywhere

This is especially true of legacy brands, which too often are prone to spinning their wheels after years of successfully giving consumers what they want. But success can be its own ball and chain. Once the tried-and-true formula works, where else can a brand travel? Experimenting becomes a way to reveal new avenues, and therefore, a new future.

What we are seeing is that maybe consistency shouldn’t be the be-all for brand success. Instead, maybe what brands should think about more is serving consumer expectations — Which, like the weather, are prone to change.

Arby’s built its brand on all-beef products but has come to a fork in the road where that isn’t enough. In an era of healthy eating and transparency, consumers want something different. So if the foundation Arby’s— quality meats, tasty ingredients, etc. — is solid, then being known also for healthy sandwiches should also prove winnable over time.

To make this work means brands should not be afraid to take risks. Secondly, they should not be afraid to follow consumer cues. But the key is to not just chase trends recklessly. It should only happen if the trends feel organic to what the brand is fundamentally about. Banks serve busy professionals. Busy professionals often need quiet and comfortable spaces to work. Banks can serve coffee, pastries, and free wifi.

If one step feels organic to the next step, it’s likely that brands are walking in the right direction.

Sign up for Moments of Restlessness