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When brands become fearful

Lost brands are statistically more likely to avoid risk, resist change, and be reluctant to invest.

7 min read


BrandvsWild-3D (1)

This post is adapted from “Brand vs Wild: Building Resilient Brands for Harsh Business Environments” (May 2017, Routledge), by Jonathan David Lewis. He is a Forbes contributor and a brand-survival expert at McKee Wallwork + Co. As partner and strategy director at MW+C, Lewis led his firm to be recognized by Advertising Age as a national leader in branding and marketing, winning the Southwest Small Agency of the Year, national B2B Campaign of the Year, and national Best Places to Work awards. Lewis’ writing explores the factors of stalled growth and the principles proven to help companies traverse the dangers of the brand wilderness.

Below us lay three bad rapids, a short stretch of calm water, and then, where the gorge suddenly narrowed, a single, twenty-foot-wide chute through which the whole frustrated Apurimac poured in unheeding rage. The river was whipped so white over the next half mile that it looked like a snowfield. The thrashing cascades raised a dense mist, rendering the dark canyon cold and clammy. Their roar made my head ache. — Joe Kane, “Running the Amazon”

Joe Kane clung to the cliff wall because his life depended on it. The towering river rocks were slippery and wet, and the sheer climb was more than he expected. Untrained and out of his depth, Kane did the worst thing possible in that moment; he looked down. The deafening roar of the raging river below and the instant death it offered shook Kane to his core.

So he froze. His body took over as his conscious mind shut down. He could not order his limbs to move, yet they shook uncontrollably. In “Running the Amazon,” Joe Kane wrote that he “quickly developed what rock climbers call ‘sewing-machine legs,’ an uncontrollable, fear-induced, pistonlike shaking.” Although mere feet from his companions, he felt isolated and alone. With death below and danger above, Kane’s life literally hung in the balance.

Joe Kane joined the ambitious Amazon Source to Sea Expedition more out of a sense of adventure than because he had any sort of expertise. The 1985 expedition, filled with world-renowned white-water experts and a film crew, sought to be the first to make a complete descent of the formidable Amazon River.

Kane was a writer by trade and was invited because of his ability to document and publicize the expedition. What he thought would be a difficult but enjoyable excursion turned into an epic journey fraught with debilitating team conflict and an ever-growing, pervasive fear of the river.

Fear is a fundamental emotion in the human experience, driving many of the decisions made in life and business today. Yet it remains a mysterious and often deceptive companion.

Our research reveals that paralyzing fear is the first reaction when brands are lost in the wilderness. Lost brands are statistically more likely to avoid risk, resist change, and be reluctant to invest. In short, a lost brand is a scared brand. After the initial shock induced by economic changes, aggressive competition, or disruptive industry dynamics, marketers face overwhelming fear. In order to overcome it, one must first understand its power.

The basic human response to fear is a unique combination of the physiological and the psychological. Humans share a common physiological response to fear, but psychologically, our reactions are unique. This means that while you must understand and prepare for the common physiological reactions you and your team will experience when your brand is confronted with fear, your psychological reactions will be entirely dependent on your organization’s culture, shared experiences, and idiosyncrasies.

Shock and subsequent fear cause the sympathetic nervous system to kick into high gear and release three key hormones into the body that elicit the fight-flight-freeze response. Essentially, your body is jacked up and ready for action (or inaction, depending on where you and your organization fall in Leach’s 10-80-10 theory).

Biochemically, your response is fixed. Your body is primed and your brain accesses a primal region that is more visceral and irrational. Ultimately, the valuable resources used to ready the body for action are burned up and the initial rush is followed by a crash that includes extreme fatigue and a drop in body temperature.

This biological response to fear is important to note as you face marketing challenges that elicit automatic, subconscious, and often irrational reactions. These challenges can be as minor as being confronted with a new idea or as immense as an unanticipated technology or new competitor that represents an existential threat.

As human beings, our first reaction to an unfamiliar threat will be fear, and our biological response is rigged to make us irrational and erratic. This means that when you first face the power of The Wild, your initial reaction is probably not the right reaction, making the old adage encouraging us to “sleep on it” not only good advice but sound science.

Joe Kane experienced this classic fear response while clinging to that slippery Amazon River cliff. As he looked down at the raging river below, his fight-flight-freeze response kicked in, initiating the sewing machine leg phenomenon that left him shaking and clinging to the wall.

Photography giant Kodak looked down at its own “raging river” in the form of digital photography at the turn of the century. And froze.

Kodak had long dominated the photography industry, garnering as much as 90% of the film market by 1996, employing as many as 140,000 people, and enjoying the fourth most valuable brand in the United States, just behind Coca-Cola, Disney, and McDonald’s. But by 2012 Kodak filed for bankruptcy, a shell of its former self. How could an American icon with an employee base larger than most countries’ standing armies and nearly unlimited resources at its disposal fall so far so fast? Fear.

Kodak’s first experience with “sewing machine legs” began with a bit of irony, as it created the very thing that would lead to its demise. In 1975, a talented Kodak engineer named Steve Sasson invented the world’s first digital camera. The camera, which would turn out to be a transformative technology, was understandably initially viewed with fear. While Kodak was known for its cameras, the company’s largest, most profitable source of revenue was in film, which enjoyed close to 70 percent gross margins.

As former Kodak CEO George Fisher put it, Kodak’s management “regarded digital photography as the enemy, an evil juggernaut that would kill the chemical-based film and paper business that fueled Kodak’s sales and profits for decades.” Steve Sasson, the man who invented digital photography, summed up Kodak’s fear response when he recounted the first time he presented the technology to leadership, saying “ … it was filmless photography, so management’s reaction was, ‘that’s cute—but don’t tell anyone about it.’”

Describing the technology as disruptive is an understatement. A camera that requires no film represented an existential threat to the company. As Kodak watched the birth of its own disruption, the subtle power of fear crept through the entire organization.


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