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What Twitter Could Learn From History’s Biggest Branding Disasters

When you tinker with the very thing that makes your brand your brand, you risk destroying everything–faster than you can type 280 characters.

What Twitter Could Learn From History’s Biggest Branding Disasters

There are landfill sites all over the world packed with product failures, from Pepsi AM to Harley Davidson’s perfume. However, there’s a special dark hole reserved for those tweaks to a product that threaten to take down a whole company. The Germans have a word for this kind of catastrophe: Schlimmbessurung: an improvement that makes things worse. Last week, Twitter introduced 280 shades of Schlimmbessurung.

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With 280-character tweets, everybody’s favorite microblogging site just became a lot less micro. Granted, as Twitter has been faced with stagnant growth and weak revenues, something had to change. Jack Dorsey announced the experiment, claiming that this solved a “real problem people have when trying to tweet.”

This ignores what real people do with Twitter. They read it. Ten percent of Twitter users account for 90% of the tweets. People read Twitter because it’s immediate and concise. Yes, the form is hard to master, but the people who do master it–love them or hate them–deliver their wit, wisdom, negativity, and all the rest of it in bite-size, espresso hits. It’s become one of the dominant UX paradigms of our time. By making Twitter easier to use for the long-winded, short-witted writers, it’s clear that Twitter’s leaders don’t understand the essence of what they’ve created.

It’s not the first time that’s happened in brand history. The lesson is always the same. Before you change something fundamental about a product, ask yourself: What is it that makes our brand our brand? Perhaps Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone, Twitter’s founders, should spend a little time poking around in the dark hole of brand Schlimmbesserung before they roll this one out.

New Coke: The biggest blunder of all

Let’s begin with the Schlimmest of all Bessurungs, the introduction of New Coke. In 1981, Pepsi was closing in on Coke. Its position as the choice of a new generation, and its dominance in taste tests, convinced Coke’s chairman, Roberto Goizueta, that something drastic had to change. So Coke reformulated, creating a sweeter, more intense flavor. They market researched the new liquid with over 200,000 cola drinkers, who preferred it to old Coke.

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Then they launched it, immediately axing the original. The result has been called one of the biggest marketing blunders of all time. Loyal Coke drinkers boycotted the new product. Sales tumbled. Pepsi’s CEO later wrote a book about the affair called, “The Other Guy Blinked.” He wrote, “I think, by the end of their nightmare, they figured out who they really are. Caretakers. They can’t change the taste of their flagship brand.”

Dorsey and Stone have created something that has trained a generation to write, read, and think in 140 characters. That’s the flavor of Twitter, the thing you can’t change. And once everybody gets 280 characters, there’s not going to be an alt-140 Twitter world. Coke took old Coke off the shelves. Customers had no alternative.

Lululemon: know what the hardcore fans love

While Nike and Adidas fought over hip and ripped teens and twenty-somethings, Lululemon quietly built a brand powerhouse by clothing yoga moms in their thirties and forties. Those moms loved the flattering silhouette that Lululemon’s fabrics afforded them, and the flowing fabrics that looked great in a coffee shop or a wobbly warrior pose. Then they started cutting manufacturing costs. The result was first noticed by store managers, who reported that customers complained the yoga pants were transparent when they stretched. This was not a good look in the ashtanga studio, or the stock market, where Lululemon lost a third of its value as its core user base fled in embarrassment.

Many of Lululemon’s wearers never break a sweat in their products. But they follow the lead of those who do. When Lululemon stopped performing for yogis, it stopped performing for everybody. Twitter’s hardcore users know how to thread tweets, how to use screen captures to make longer points, and how to grind down a complex point into a few words. For years, they’ve been demanding that Twitter edit tweets, deal with trolls, bots, and Nazis (did I mention the Nazis?). Your power users are your most valuable resource. Listen to them closely, Biz and Jack. Are they asking for more characters?

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Star Wars Galaxies: making it too easy

LucasArts’ Star Wars Galaxies is now remembered for having one of the worst improvements in gaming history. SWG was a massively multiplayer game where you started by choosing a profession and mastering it, picking up skills and experience along the way. Pick up enough skills and have enough arcane adventures for literally years, and SWG might make you a Jedi. This became an obsession for the most loyal players who began to treat the game as a gigantic treasure hunt with The Force as a prize. Jedi were few and far between, revered as gods in the SWG world. Then, some years after its launch, came the Schlimmbesserung: NGE, or New Game Enhancements. Without warning, a new character class was created. From day one, players could choose Jedi as a profession. Hmm, let me think . . . doctor, animal tender, Jedi? What to do? All those years of grinding had been for nothing. Now every n00b had a lightsaber and lightning crackling from their fingertips. The best players quit, and the game shuttered.

People find it difficult to express themselves in 140 characters. But millions of us have invested the time and energy to achieve some kind of mastery in that art. I should know; I’m Twitter number eighteen thousand and something. When you make it twice as easy to tweet, that investment counts for nothing. Remember, Twitter is read by 90% of people, written by 10%. And there’s a small group of people right at the top of that pyramid, the .001%, who command much of the attention. Alienate those people, and Twitter is worthless. Yes, 140 characters can make your brain hurt. But it’s a good hurt.

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Why product designers need to understand brands

When Coke changed its formulation, a columnist for the Village Voice said, “I’m sure this is the first time that ‘recipe’ and ‘courage’ have been used in the same sentence.” But it did take courage. It took the nerve that’s born of desperation, but it also was a sign that the leadership of Coke–and LucasArts, and Lululemon–had no idea about what its audience was actually buying.

Most changes aren’t fundamental to a brand. UGG’s attempts at sophistication with the $2,000 Collezione UGG range attracted derision and almost no sales, but the company’s core user base could still rock UGG’s cozy slob-slippers. In the Phaeton, VW made a luxury car that your neighbors wouldn’t envy–missing the point of a luxury car. But you could still buy a Golf.

When you tinker with the very thing that makes your brand your brand, you risk destroying everything very fast. If you can’t articulate what that very thing is, then, as they say in Germany, there’s gonna be a whole load of Schadenfreude about your Schlimmbesserung.

Brian Millar is the founder of Paddle, a consultancy that gathers information on the kinds of content that we love online. He continues to tweet 140 characters at a time @paddlepowered.