Mark Ritson on branding: Brand rethink shows Smarties have the answer

It is extremely difficult to identify which companies are good at branding. One common mistake is to assume that the ownership of strong brands indicates equally strong brand management. In reality, the two very rarely go hand in hand. Take Coca-Cola. While Coke is unquestionably a power brand, the brand strategies implemented by Coca-Cola marketers have often seemed frighteningly inept.

Many marketers look at market share or, God forbid, ad campaigns to ascertain a company's brand expertise. In truth, there are a multitude of more accurate indicators of brand proficiency, and at the top of my list is a brand revitalisation strategy. On that basis, Smarties are in very safe hands at Nestle Rowntree, which announced last week that it is changing the iconic design of the chocolate brand. After 68 years, the cylindrical Smarties tube with the coloured plastic disc as a stopper is to be replaced by a 'hexatube' with a cardboard flip-top lid.

Customers are outraged by the proposed change, and the media have fanned the flames gleefully. Once again, sinister 'marketing men' have, it is claimed, struck down a much-loved part of British culture. Words such as 'scandalous', 'disgraceful' and 'immoral' are being used in online discussion groups. Yet despite this reaction, Smarties has never been better managed.

Many brands struggle to maintain their relevance in the market. This is particularly true of successful brands that become convinced the original strategies that established them should remain sacrosanct. The innovation and creativity that initially propelled the brand to the apex of the market are gradually eroded and replaced by a conservative strategic culture in which every significant branding decision is preserved in aspic.

The brand in question does not immediately lose either sales or share.

But its gradual inability to embrace change in the market renders it increasingly out of touch. The brand becomes 'dusty'. From being a vibrant part of consumer culture, it becomes that most odious of things, an icon. Icons are powerful things. They are valuable, recognised, respected, even worshipped.

But, crucially, icons are never enjoyed, shared or consumed. Iconic brands are the result of brand managers who let the gravitas of a power brand and the pressure of a large, loyal marketplace overwhelm them into inertia.

We British have proven particularly adept at turning our best brands into icons. Take Blackpool. Once the vibrant centre for working class recreation, now a tourist anachronism. What about Aquascutum? A powerhouse of British fashion a century ago, it now limps through London Fashion Week with an undistinguished show and has an almost anonymous retail presence.

Then, of course, there is Rolls Royce - once the epitome of success and glamour, now an antique symbol of a bygone age.

It is no coincidence that each of these three brands enjoyed a period of remarkable success and a striking image (Blackpool Tower, the waterproof overcoat and the Spirit of Ecstasy, respectively). These are the classic ingredients that without first-rate brand management spell inevitable icon status. It's a tough life managing a great brand because, against all prevailing instincts to sit back and lock things down, the only correct strategic course is to question everything, especially the most enduring and established elements of the brand.

So, well done Nestle Rowntree.

In changing Smarties it has signalled its brand expertise. More impressive still, it is changing the brand when it is still in rude health.

Rather than waiting for the ageing process to occur, it is striking while the brand remains fresh. I think I have finally worked out where that name comes from.

30 SECONDS ON ... SMARTIES

- Smarties were launched as Chocolate Beans in 1937, priced 2d. They were renamed Smarties and packed in the famous tube one year later.

- The eight original colours - red, yellow, orange, green, mauve, pink, light brown and brown - remained the same until the replacement of the light brown by a blue Smartie in 1989.

- About 570,000 tubes of Smarties are made at Nestle Rowntree's York factory every day.

- There is an average of 48 Smarties in every tube.

- Nestle Rowntree has produced 5bn Smarties caps over the past 25 years, and some rare lids are now collectors' items.

- If the Smarties eaten in one year were laid end to end, they would stretch almost 63,380 miles (102,000km) - more than two-and-a-half times around the Earth's equator.

- An estimated 16,000 Smarties are eaten every minute in the UK.

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