Reviving a Declining Brand using Classical Conditioning
Over the years, we find that some popular brands have steadily declined and some have faded away. This article investigates various aspects of attitudinal change responsible for brand decline by analyzing isolated cases of various well known brands in India. It sheds lights on the aspect of brand decline in the context of dynamic business environments and how the concept of classical conditioning can be applied to revive declining brands.
In the context of cultural backdrop, subjective norms and other factors such as popular values and beliefs of the target group, even established brands face uncertainty. Once-popular brands such as Zesdi, Rajdoot, BPL, Goldspot, Binaca, Onida, Margo, Uncle Chips, etc. have slipped out of the minds of the present consumer permanently whereas a few other brands still generate pleasant associations when recalled.
A brand represents significant investments of time and effort and its decline with time is a sheer loss to the organization. New product introduction is seen as an uncertain and expensive option. On the other hand, revitalizing declined brands can save considerable investment and efforts and also generate additional revenue out of perceived sunk cost. This article explores the option of bringing an attitudinal change in the consumer perception required to revive a declining brand by applying the concept of “Classical Conditioning”.
Customer Attitudes and Brand Value
"Brand decline can be ultimately associated with unfavorable attitude or other brands gaining more favorable attitudes, assuming other contextual parameters do not play any role."
Brand decline can be ultimately associated with unfavorable attitude or other brands gaining more favorable attitudes, assuming other contextual parameters do not play any role. Our methodology to analyze brand decline starts with the isolation of parameters that contribute to the formation and sustenance of attitudes. Subsequently, change in attitude due to associations created by advertisements and change in perceived value due to changes in product features, customer psychographics or favourable attitude creation towards other brands (new or existing) were analyzed. Change in attitude due to change in perception and learned association were also evaluated by means of analyzing the change in brand equity, brand image and brand loyalty.
14 well known Indian brands which were popular in the past from five different product categories (Soaps, Television, Washing Machine, Motorcycle and Toothpaste) were analyzed on the above parameters against the corresponding market leaders.
Reasons for the Decline of Brands
The analysis of advertisements and propositions of the former mentioned brands was used to identify broad issues that lead to the decline of brands which were once money-spinners for their respective organizations.
Interference Effect and Failure to Recall the Older Stronger Association
With time, brands make changes to their proposition to satisfy the needs of an evolving market. It may change its positioning to remain relevant with changing consumer motivations or to appeal to a different segment of consumer. The association created with the new proposition interferes with the previously created associations. If the old associations of the brand were strong due to original attributes/proposition, when variants to the product attributes or proposition are advertised, the new associations weaken the old associations.
Incongruent Brand Image and Lower Perceived Value
With time, a product category evolves along with a possible shift in purchase motivator. When the offerings of a brand in such cases fail to appear in line with the category purchase motivator, the brand performs poorly with respect to the other brands with relevant offerings. The decision to whether or not alter the brand offerings is a tricky question. Any change in the offering will affect the brand equity created so far. In such a case, with evolving product category and unchanged product offerings, the brand associations and equity remain strong. However, the associations no longer remain relevant, resulting in the movement of the brand out of the consideration set of the consumer. Therefore, when the purchase motivator is no longer valid, previous successful associations become invalid and irrelevant. The brand image falls and the perceived value decreases.
Associations in Conflict with Held Beliefs
Understanding the cultural setting and the beliefs and values of the target group are very important for any brand. Even though the brand associations and image are positive, if its offering is clashing with the beliefs and values of the target group, the brand will perform poorly compared to other brands.
Entry of Competitor with more Relevant Positioning and Brand Association
The brand association weakens when product offerings get undifferentiated. Clash within abundant offerings of similar associations and absence of supporting product attributes weaken the brand image and hence the brand equity declines. To avoid interference effect and hence weakening of association, some brands come up with associations different from other brands. If these associations are incongruent or irrelevant to the target group, the competitor’s associations are reinforced as a brand congruent with the requirements. Hence, interference effect should be avoided by cautiously watching out for clashing associations with the leader in the category who has the strongest associations.
"Clash within abundant offerings of similar associations and absence of supporting product attributes weaken the brand image and hence the brand equity declines."
Key Issues that Cause Brand Decline
The analysis led to isolation of issues which needed to be resolved for reviving a declining brand. The key steps to reviving a declining brand are as follows:
Issue 1: How to reinforce previous associations which were strong but are now either extinct or not recallable because of interference effect?
Issue 2: How to make brand image congruent and raise perceived value, when the product has strong brand equity?
Issue 3: How to overcome old associations that are in conflict with held beliefs?
Issue 4: How can the old association of superior brand image be restored when brand equity has declined due to a plethora of competitive offerings? How to position a brand when the competitor has the strongest association?
Fighting the Issues to Revive the Declining Brand
The first issue is about reinforcing the old associations of a brand. Communicating the old association again or a similar association can help to tackle this issue. Care should be taken to avoid induction of association dissonance and also to make the associations clear. The paper titled “Reducing Retroactive Interference: An Interference Analysis”1 makes it clear as to when the interference would be high and when it would be low. According to the paper, for lower interference, there should be lesser uncertainty of the response to the stimuli i.e. from past retained learning because of previous conditioning; it should be possible for the consumer to guess the association and the response to stimuli in the new association.
To identify which parts of the earlier association/conditioning procedure is retained with maximum strength over the period of time, the paper “Memory for Words, Pictures, and Faces: Retroactive Interference, Forgetting, and Reminiscence” 2comes into play. It says that the words and the picture associations from the earlier conditioning would be retained with maximum strength compared to landscapes or people. Hence the usage of similar/ same words and pictorial associations would provide maximum impact.
The paper titled “Consumer learning and brand equity” 3 can be referred to for raising perceived value of a brand which has strong brand equity. The paper mentions that brand is used as a better indicator of quality than attributes by customers. This means that in an outdated market, there will be sales if a new product is launched which supports the current motivators rather than the extinct motivators.
"Brand is used as a better indicator of quality than attributes by customers."
To ensure trials for the product and success over a long term, the paper titled “Post-experience advertising effects on consumer memory” 4 can be used. This paper states that after an initial experience, if the advertisements support a particular experience or association similar to what was experienced on usage, the experience is viewed exactly as an occasion of the association/ experience. This could be looked at in two ways –Firstly, the past experience, before revitalization of the brand, and secondly, the experience from induced trials, and from word of mouth. In either case, if the product delivers an experience congruent with the advertisement and association, there will be creation of a positive attitude.
To rectify the associations which are incongruent with the beliefs of the target group it is advisable to reposition the brand to align with the belief. However the brand would need the creation of a strong favourable attitude to compete with the other brands. The paper titled “Advertising Repetition and Variation Strategies – Implications for understanding Attitude Strength”5 suggests how to create strong attitudes by repetition and controlled variation.
The paper on “The Influence of Classical Conditioning Procedures on Subsequent Attention to the Conditioned Brand” 6suggests how the attention towards the conditioning is increased on successful conditioning of the brand. Consumers would themselves find out more about the product and the brand and hence know how the product is much better than what was expected out of the beliefs.
The fourth issue about competition and how to tackle a competitor who is positioned better can be handled with the help of the paper titled “Brand Credibility, Brand Consideration, and Choice” 7. It suggests that credibility increases the consideration of a brand to a large extent, and in many cases brings it into the consideration set. This is one of the ways of creating better brand image and hence brand equity. Further, instead of taking a central route, a peripheral route may be taken so as to target the less involved consumers more, as suggested in the paper titled “Peripheral Persuasion and Brand Choice“ 8. By creating a peripheral route, it is possible to bypass the more relevant positioning of the competitor to an extent. Credibility adds to this to push the brand to the choice set.
A declined brand need not necessarily mean sunk costs. In some cases, the past good associations and equity can be leveraged to bring back the brand into the consideration set of consumers, and hence making the best out of an experiment which is otherwise considered to be failed. The four issues isolated in this article can be tackled and can help revive a declining brand.
Marketing, Reviving, Declining Brand, Classical Conditioning,
S. Ramesh Kumar is a Professor in the Marketing Area at IIM Bangalore. He can be reached
Eric Minj (PGP 2010-12) holds a B.E. in Electronics & Communications Engineering from Delhi College of Engineering and can be reached at
Gopikrishnan V. (PGP 2010-12) holds a B.Arch from IIT Kharagpur and can be reached at
Kruthika M. (PGP 2010-12) holds a B.E. in Electronics & Communications Engineering from PSG College of Technology and can be reached at
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