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20 July 2011

K-Swiss Cuts Loose: How To @#$%@ing Reposition Your Brand

by Freddy Tran Nager, Found of Atomic Tango + Aficionado of Daring Branding…

Let’s say you start an athletic shoe company specializing in tennis, a sport mostly favored by upper-crust Europeans and the country-club set. You cement your brand image by naming your company after a tiny, extremely civilized European country famous for chocolate, watches, skiing, and an army known more for pocket knives than fighting wars. This Euro image is necessary, not just because you yourself are Swiss, but because you’re launching your company in Los Angeles in 1966, and L.A. in the 60s evokes Helter Skelter and riots, choking smog and Cold War weapons programs.

“K-Swiss has a nice ring to it,” you think. “Let’s hope consumers buy it.”

And they do — to the tune of half-a-billion dollars a year. You’ve successfully established a distinctive brand position in the eyes of consumers, something that takes most companies immense time and effort and money and hope.

They try. You succeed.

Now, 45 years later, you want to throw that @#$%@ing position away. Why? Because you want to go to where the money is. Not just millions, but BILLIONS. And traditionally speaking, that means young males. And that means catering to their steroid-fueled fantasies of sweat-and-blood drenched glory on the fields of conquest…

To Hell With Launching a New Brand

You could launch another brand that caters just to those young men. Why mess with the good thing you have in K-Swiss? After all, repositioning a brand is extremely difficult once the first position has been established. Look at Walmart’s futile, expensive attempt to reposition itself as “fashionable.” Or Microsoft’s desperate attempts to appear hip and edgy… which just made it look desperate.

Indeed, most marketing experts (myself included) would have suggested, hey, keep K-Swiss the way it is and launch a new brand. Call it something like “Testosterosa” or “Major Huevos.”

But you say repositioning K-Swiss is not impossible. Look at how Hyundai (Hyundai? Yes, Hyundai) repositioned itself from being the butt of late-night talk show jokes to a fast-rising brand that Americans are actually loyal to. Or, in your industry, you noted how a small running shoe company in Oregon came to DOMINATE THE WORLD after hiring some guy named Michael Jordan.

So you refuse to change your name. Rather, you go out and greenlight the ballsiest commercial by a major brand ever (particularly a major brand named after a tiny, extremely civilized European country famous for chocolate, watches, skiing and an army that doesn’t actually fight). While other brands act like nervous prepubescent turtles when it comes to advertising, cowering in their shells lest they remotely possibly offend anyone (even people not in their market), you realize life in general is a risky business, so WTF, let’s… ahem… just do it (warning: NSFW — put your headphones on):

It’s loud. It’s funny. It’s expensive. It’s celebrity driven (but not in the clichéd sports marketing way). It’s suited only for the Web. And it’s irresistibly watchable.

More importantly, it’s what Eating the Big Fish author Adam Morgan would call a “symbol of re-evaluation” — a product or message that cuts through the clutter and makes not just a statement, but a MOTHER@#$@$#! STATEMENT!!!

It’s also the kind of MOTHER@#$@$#! STATEMENT!!! necessary to go viral in an age when several days worth of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, and young males can stream much harsher media (like “Spartacus” reruns) on demand at Netflix. To reach your target market, being mild-mannered no longer cuts it (or cuts through).

So you did what it takes. Will it work? Will young males not only watch your video, but also ditch their swooshes and rush out to wear K-Swiss because, you know, they WANT to be associated with the brand? Because they now IDENTIFY with it?

You’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, it’s definitely fun to watch.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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