Last week the Wall St. Journal featured a story on Tiffany & Co’s “midlife crisis.” The piece highlighted the jewelry brand’s struggle to regain its “cool” and improve recently tepid sales and profits. A few days later they announced the hiring of a new CEO.
Yet Tiffany is hardly alone in dealing with what I have coined the “customer trapeze“, particularly as Millennials become an increasingly important demographic.
The customer trapeze is the idea of hoping to reach a new, highly desirable set of customers while letting go of those with less favorable characteristics. Most often we see it at play when brands face an aging customer base. Knowing full well that their customers will literally die off, companies will seek to update their image and strategy to seem more hip and trendy. This might include becoming more fashion forward, less expensive or attaching themselves to celebrities that appeal to different cohorts. The key to executing the trapeze move is to not let go of one group before being fully ready to take on the new one.
In Tiffany’s case, over the years they have introduced less expensive items and expanded their assortments in an attempt to widen their appeal. Most recently, they’ve taken on Lady Gaga and Elle Fanning as spokespeople and launched a new, more youthful ad campaign. They’ve even taken steps to lessen the predominance of their iconic blue in their brand imagery. The challenge, of course, is that many of these steps to attract new customers run the risk of alienating long-term, often highly valuable, ones.
Tiffany follows in the footsteps of many brands that see the demographic writing on the wall and take bold steps to attract new customers. Readers of a certain age may remember the “This Is Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile”campaign. This is a text book example of a brand that let go of one customer group before it could safely latch onto another one. The once legendary company went too far, too fast and, at the risk of pushing the trapeze analogy too far, suffered mightily from its aggressiveness and decision to work without a net.
There are many examples of brands essentially abandoning one customer group too quickly to chase a new, sexier one. Often this comes through an attempt to “trade up” the customer base by pushing more expensive and fashion forward products to attract more affluent consumers. The most recent disaster of this sort came under Ron Johnson’s failed reboot of JC Penney. While not (yet?) fatal, the company has been struggling to recover for over 4 years.
History reveals that very few established brands are able to successfully execute a dramatic re-configuration of their customer base–at least quickly. Once you get beyond Cadillac and IBM, the list grows short indeed. It’s not hard to understand why. The more a brand is known for one set of things, the harder it is to persuade consumers to believe something fundamentally new and different. To the extent a company starts to dramatically move away from what made it successful with its traditional segment in the hopes of cultivating a new group, it risks alienating its historical core. More often than not, the customers that are being de-emphasized are significant contributors to current cash flow. We saw this with JC Penney and I witnessed it first hand when we tried similar moves at Sears more than a decade ago.
With rare exception, brands simply cannot survive, much less thrive over the long-term without being really good at acquiring profitable new customers to replenish those that leave or naturally decrease their spending. But executing this transition is not so easy. Like any trapeze act, the customer trapeze is all about speed, coordination and timing. Let go at the wrong time, be it too late or too early, and the fall can be disastrous.
A version of this story recently appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.