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Happy New Year! When Should You Change Your Advertising?

Johnny Molson

If you don’t want to read this whole thing, short answer:  Probably never.

During a 12-day celebration called Akitu, Babylonians would make promises to their gods prior to the sowing season. Spring was the beginning of the new year for them and if you kept your promises, the gods would bestow good fortune.

This ritual is likely why we still make New Year’s resolutions 4,000 years later. It’s our opportunity to start anew and do better. But for your brand, resist the temptation to make changes…for the marketing gods may not look favorably upon you.

If you’ve ever hired more than one marketer for your company, it’s likely marketer #2 came in and told you to change all the stuff marketer #1 did.

Your logo’s too old.”

“Your website is wrong.”

“You’re advertising here when you should be advertising there.

Sleeves get rolled up and we excitedly begin to break things that aren’t broken. 

Changing your brand, or even elements of your brand, should be approached with all the apprehension of a bomb squad. Your brand only exists in the mind of the customer. The fact that you’re in your customer’s mind at all is a miracle. To put it another way…most brands aren’t in our minds. Most people don’t know most businesses.

When should you change?  And when should you absolutely not change?

Let’s get the easy ones out of the way.  You should change things when

  1. Your name is a liability (Theranos, Enron, Bernie Madoff Investment Securities, Ayds Diet Plan)
  2. Your product/service is outdated (Mr. Terwilliger’s Fax Machine Repair)
  3. You’re entering a new market and your current brand doesn’t fit (Toyota and Honda are not luxury car brands, so they invented Lexus and Acura to play in that game).

There are likely other valid reasons, but you get the idea.  If there’s a major tectonic shift in your business, product, or marketplace, then you might want to consider a change. 

Here is why you should never change:

  1. Because you’re bored.
  2. Because you hired a new marketing firm.
  3. Because a customer complained.
  4. Because you read an article.

Watch this article. Yes, you can do that.

The temptation to want to shake the snow globe and change things up is seductive.  We’re all business owners and entrepreneurs, and we like things that are new and exciting. 

But our customers like things comfortable, predictable, and consistent. 

That’s not a marketing theory, that’s neuroscience. Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman introduced us to fast and slow thinking in the brain and wrote about cognitive biases in the 1970s. Dr. John Sweller coined the term “cognitive load” and described how our brains look for, and prefer, shortcuts.

In other words, when deciding between two brands, our brains tend to gravitate to the one we recognize.  Learning new things when we don’t have to increases cognitive load, and our brains have better things to do.  Like breathing.

And this is why “changing things up” is so risky.  Memories are built by repetition. 

Let’s look at the Campbell’s Soup label. 

125 years of looking…pretty much the same.  White script, red banner, and a gold medallion in the center showing off a prize won at the World’s Fair in 1900.

Even a recent update brings very subtle changes.

Imagine if they suddenly changed just because they wanted to make it “modern” and “appeal to Millennials.”

Whatever memories had been established in the customer’s minds would be squandered.  Reaching for the familiar can becomes “difficult” and the brain will look for the next friendly thing it sees. 

Congratulations Progresso.

Your company has colors, logos, phrases, sounds, music, and even attitudes.  Start messing with those things, and it’s no different than showing up to work each day with a different wig and fake mustache.  It might be novel at first, but eventually it will just frustrate people.

Some of this may sound in conflict with the idea of being unique, interesting, and different.  Another neuroscience reality is habituation.  That’s when something is so commonplace it becomes practically invisible (like the low hum of your refrigerator or a crack in the wall).

That’s a lesson for another day, but it’s like a waltz.  A step forward, a step to the side, a step to the back. 

Keep it interesting. But keep it within the bounds of the elements you’ve already established for your brand.

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