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A brand's life in four stages

The product (or brand) life cycle is one of the most classic, well-researched marketing concepts. There’s a wonderful piece written about it in the November 1965 issue (yes, you read that correctly) of Harvard Business Review. It’s well worth digging into when you have the time. If you don’t have the time, here’s the summary: the cycle contains four distinct stages that span several years from a brand’s birth to its eventual downturn. The stages are as follows: 1. Development The brand is in its infancy. Sales are slow as awareness gradually builds. 2. Growth The brand is approaching widespread appeal. Demand becomes more significant and the size of the market increases rapidly. 3. Maturity The brand is well entrenched. It reaches peak demand and then levels off as it begins to feel less remarkable. 4. Decline The brand loses its lustre. Sales decline as new and exciting competitors begin their development and growth phases. More recently, we came across this blog post by author Mark Manson titled “The Four Stages of Life” and it got us thinking about how we might look beyond the textbook definition of product/brand life cycle towards a more purposeful, more human, narrative. Coincidentally, Manson’s model also has four stages, but there’s a whole lot more humanity to it: 1. Mimicry Learning by watching and doing as others do. Being blissfully dependent and in constant search of validation. 2. Self-discovery Coming into our own. Pushing boundaries, discovering differences and embracing these differences to the fullest. 3. Commitment Figuring out what’s truly important and what we’re really, really good at. Finding our life’s purpose and doggedly pursuing it. 4. Legacy Achieving contentment and uncovering a deeper sense of meaning. Focusing the time we have left on how we will be remembered and the gifts we want to leave behind. If we take the Manson model and apply it to brands and businesses, here’s how it might look: Stage One: Mimicry When you launch a new brand into the market, it’s often thought of as wholly original idea that no one in the history of humanity has conjured up before, but the reality is, this is highly unlikely. The cold, hard, truth is that all of your thinking, innovating, iterating, planning and executing is a giant collage of your past and present experiences. In fact, when you set out to do what you’re doing, you probably had the goal in mind of imitating another company, product or brand (whether consciously or not). This is perfectly fine. Really it is. Just as long as you acknowledge that whatever you’re doing is most likely not original and that early on, it’s actually important to learn from others that are wiser and more successful than you. Having this level of understanding and humility will actually allow you to grow, instead of being stunted by delusions of grandeur. Actions for business:

  • Admit that you’re probably not original and that, right now, it’s perfectly fine not to be.

  • Identify which brands and businesses inspire you. Said in another way: what brands or businesses would you want as your mentor?

  • Look for ways you can apply––or at the very least learn from––their practices and principles.

  • Don’t be afraid to connect with people working for your mentor businesses to see if you can forge a relationship with them. You’d be surprised how willing they might be to share what they do and how they do it, even if they’re a competitor.

  • Track how your mimicking impacts your business. Not everything will work or be right for you, but no matter what, you’ll learn from it.

Stage Two: Self-Discovery By now your business or brand has reached early adulthood. To get it this far you’ve unashamedly copied everyone you aspire to be and now you’re beginning to feel like your brand might be able to strike out on its own. The only way to do this is to discover who your brand really is and what makes it special in the world. You’re going to have to push it, test it, have some victories and have some defeats. The next few years will become your brand’s experimental years. Perhaps a different way to think of this stage is that it’s all about, as Manson says, “discovering limitations”. When brands are young, innocent and blissfully unaware of almost everything, we think they can do almost anything they want. That is, until they can’t. So, at some point during this stage, you might realize that your brand will never become the Uber of whatever, but you might also realize that it doesn’t need to be. That’s the power of discovering limitations—it can be deeply freeing. Actions for business:

  • Try stuff with your brand. Not just stuff your mentors have done. Your own stuff. Do the things that excite you and also make you a little scared.

  • Create a culture of bravery. You, your team and your business are going to face adversity and make mistakes. Don’t let this derail your progress, nor your mindset. It’s all part of growing up.

  • Set aside budget for experiments and let your team pitch for a piece of the pie. If you’re the only one on the team, make pitches to yourself. Justify the spend and then execute flawlessly. Don’t forget to measure results.

  • Consider adjacencies. Are there ways you can push outside the boundaries of your core business to achieve incremental growth? It goes without saying that due diligence is key. Straying too far may get you lost. Not straying far enough will get you nowhere.

Stage Three: Commitment Stage three arrives at about the point in your brand’s life when it has become truly comfortable in its own skin. Things should be really clicking by now. There’s less and less hurdles to overcome and there’s a confident optimism in everything that your business does. Your brand has developed a middle-aged swagger because it knows exactly what it is and what it isn’t. It doesn’t have to prove itself to anyone (except maybe that one annoying naysayer on the board) and competitors are envious of its position. Your goal in Stage three is to maximize potential. To do this you have to take a few less risks and double down on everything your brand does best. Your mission should be unwavering and you should know how to achieve it. Companies around you will express their admiration and your competitors will quake in their boots. Life is good. Actions for business:

  • Write down the rules of the game that made you successful. Follow the rules; stay successful. Make sure to share them widely within your company.

  • Don’t get a big head. Just because you found what works for your business, doesn’t mean you know everything there is to know. Experiments are still important; just be more prudent than you were in Stage One and Two.

  • Look for opportunities to mentor other businesses. One of the greatest learning opportunities is to teach. You might even get to return some of the favours you received early on.

Stage Four: Legacy It’s typical for us mere mortals to begin thinking about our legacy when we find ourselves getting older and more introspective—when we’re finally seeing the fruits of a meaningful life well-lived. But legacy is a funny thing, because if you leave it to the last minute, you might look back and realize you haven’t left much of anything behind and that you have very little time left to fix it. Making up for lost or misspent time in your twilight years isn’t ideal. You need to start young. The same can be said for brands that only act with purpose when they’re getting long in the tooth. It’s better late than never, but so much more can be achieved if brands think about their legacy from the day they’re born. As Stephen Covey states, we must always “begin with the end in mind”. Brands don’t always have the greatest reputation, especially those that put profits way ahead of purpose, so legacy is something that should be discussed and acted upon much more frequently at every level of the corporation. When companies stop focusing on their stock price and instead focus on how they can solve critical world problems––inequality, poverty, climate change, biological risks, to name a few––then there’s a real legacy in the making. Profits and purpose can coexist and as brands and businesses we must always implore each other to to do more. The revelation here is that Stage Four doesn’t, in fact, arrive at the end of your brand’s life, but instead at the very beginning. Legacy, then, is a lifelong pursuit that must command your attention from day one. Actions for business:

  • Purpose delivered consistently over time = legacy, so establish your purpose early on and stay true to it. Keep asking yourself “What do I want my brand to be remembered for? What will my brand leave behind when it’s gone or when I’m gone”.

  • Make sure everyone in the company knows your brand purpose and what’s expected of them to deliver on it. You’ll need the team behind you.

  • Your brand may not be able to solve the world’s greatest problems, but you should find ways that it can help. At a minimum, don’t make them worse.

  • If people around you begin to lose sight of the legacy you want to create, call them on it. You’ll need to be courageous, but that’s what it takes to make a difference.

A brand’s life is filled with twists and turns and the path is not always clear, but the good news is that there are ways we can apply non-traditional models and mindsets that make our brands more human along the way.


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