retail news in context, analysis with attitude

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Hi, I'm Kevin Coupe and this is FaceTime with the Content Guy.

Brand equity is something to be cherished. Nurtured. Attended to at every possible moment. It seems to me that every marketing, merchandising and even personnel decision ought to be made by using a filter that says, "How does this affect our brand and what we mean to our customer?"

Violate the meaning of your brand, and you run the risk of disenfranchising your customers. Even your best customers. That's never a good idea.

There have been a few stories over the past week or so that have gotten me thinking about this...

For example, there was a story in the Washington Post about Weight Watchers, and how it is facing economic difficulties because in the Internet age, "there are a bunch of new ways to get free the stuff for which they used to charge." (Go figure - that ends up being something that the newly acquired Washington Post knows something about...)

The thing hurting Weight Watchers is the fact that much of its brand equity and business are built on the notion of going to meetings for support. The Post describes it this way: "Weight Watchers offers something most other diet programs don’t: Weekly meetings with a community of people who provide encouragement and support, like Alcoholics Anonymous for overeaters. You pay to attend and get weighed on a weekly basis, and once you attain your weight goal, you don’t have to pay again unless you gain it back."

But now, social networking makes it possible to create your own support system - no formal meetings, no weigh-ins, and no fees. it remains to be seen whether this will be as effective as what Weight Watchers has to offer, but the company now is faced with a challenge - how to sustain the business model in a world that has changed, and do so without hurting brand equity.

Never an easy thing to accomplish.

Or, take JetBlue, which after years of being successful as a discount airline, this week announced that it is adding a premium section to some of its planes, offering a walled-off section that will feature lie-flat beds, hot meals and free booze. JetBlue wants to get some of the first class and business class money that is going to other airlines, and thinks it can do this while maintaining what has always been a discount image.

I don't know about that. I think JetBlue is going to have to step carefully as it goes about marketing these changes. Because if people who always perceived that JetBlue was an egalitarian kind of airline suddenly think that approach has been compromised in search of higher fares and a better class of customer, the whole brand image could be soiled.

Never an easy thing to accomplish.

Finally, the Wall Street Journal the other day had a piece about the Apple Store, which has been looking for a leader since John Browett departed last October; Browett had only been there a few months, having been brought in to replace Ron Johnson, who went off to his ill-fated and sort tenure at JC Penney, in April 2012.

The problem, the story says, is that Ron Johnson focused on constantly improving and expanding customer services offered by Apple Stores. When Browett came in, he started cutting costs ... and the reaction to that explains why he got cut. But the headhunting firm that was hired to find a replacement hasn't been able to come up with the right person. (They've certainly been turning over every rock. They even called me six months ago thinking that I could give them some names. Which I did. Maybe it is time to get a new headhunter.)

The problem for Apple is that without retail leadership and innovation, Apple Stores simply may not be seen as the gold standard that they once were. They're still better than most, but "better than most" simply would not have cut it during the Steve Jobs and Ron Johnson days.

When I was out in Portland, I went to the new Microsoft Store there, which is big and beautiful and on a great corner of downtown. The Apple Store, on the other hand, is a small unit on the bottom floor of a downtown mall. Now, to be fair, that big, beautiful Microsoft Store had three customers in it when I was there, and five minutes later, when I visited the nearby Apple Store, I found it to be mobbed. And the Apple Store employees were a lot more engaged than those at the Microsoft Store. But that's not something that Apple can take for granted. One of its real brand advantages has always been the Apple Store, and it has to protect that advantage at every turn.

Not easy to accomplish, but absolutely necessary.

Many, if not most companies, probably can see elements of their own business models in these three examples. It is important to continue to innovate, to protect one's differential advantages, while burnishing brand equity, every moment of every day. That's how you stay relevant. That how you avoid obsolescence.

That's what is on my mind this Thursday morning. As always, I want to hear what is on your mind.

KC's View: