Are brands back? Well, yes and no. It’s not that the doomsayers were all wrong. Media are becoming infinitely more complex.

Big retailers — especially Wal-Mart Stores Inc. — are more powerful than ever, pressuring the profits that big brands need to fuel marketing and innovation. And every year surveys show consumers becoming more cynical about advertising. No wonder so many brands have faltered: Coca-Cola, Levi Strauss, Kodak, Ford — the list goes on.



But the savviest brand managers have adapted, creating a new paradigm in which innovation is king, marketing is diffuse and personal, and size can be an advantage. Nothing shows this more than perennial No. 1 detergent Tide, where P&G’s stepped-up consumer research, brand extensions, and ads have reawakened it within a moribund category.



Here are five lessons from classic companies and upstarts alike. All are thriving by managing brands differently than companies did in the heyday of the mass market.



1.) Innovate. Innovate. Innovate.

Why would P&G tinker with Tide? Long the detergent leader, Tide would seem best left alone, a profitable annuity on years of mass-market flogging in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. But P&G has tinkered nonetheless, combining strong technology and consumer research to push sales up 2.6% over the last year in a category that is growing less than 1%. The secret: a widening family of detergents and cleaners that now includes everything from Tide Coldwater, for cold-water washing, to Tide Kick, a combination measuring cup and stain penetrator.



Innovation isn’t always built from scratch. P&G is a master at transferring technologies from one brand to another. Tide StainBrush, a new electric brush for removing stains, uses the same basic mechanism as the Crest Spinbrush Pro toothbrush — also a P&G brand. Gillette, too, is adept at cross-pollination. Its latest winner is the battery-operated M3Power, the result of a collaboration between the company’s razor, Duracell battery, and Braun small-appliance units. Despite a 50% price premium over what Gillette charged for its previous top-of-the-line razor, the M3Power has captured a 35% share of the U.S. razor market in seven months.



2.) Move Fast — Or Lose Out

Not only are customers hooked on innovation, they’re demanding it faster. Handbag designer Coach Inc. once introduced new products quarterly; now they come out monthly. On Coach’s Web site, the new line currently features a bevy of options, from a $498 suede tote bag covered in an oversized pink and purple logo pattern to the “Coach Soho Nappa Small Tortilla,” a white leather number with a tassel and a $328 price tag. “For brands to stay relevant, they have to stay on their toes. Complacency has no place in this market,” says CEO Lew Frankfort. In any given month, Frankfort says, new products account for 30% of U.S. retail store sales.



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