TOMS Roasting Co. vs. Vogue’s Kimye Cover: A Cautionary Tale in Brand Evolution

Trends come and go. New technologies emerge. Consumer tastes, preferences and habits shift. As a result, brands must evolve or die. But with change comes risk. Will your next big idea be the next big thing or just a big black eye? After all, the history of marketing is riddled with spectacular failures and flops. Sony Betamax. New Coke. The Gap retro logo redesign debacle of 2010. In just the past few weeks two major brands – TOMS and Vogue – have taken major evolutionary leaps with very disparate results. Let’s examine their stories and the valuable lessons they offer to us all in how to maximize our brands’ possibilities for growth while avoiding potentially disastrous pitfalls.

TOMS takes on coffee.

On March 11, TOMS founder and CEO Blake Mycoskie took the stage at South by Southwest to announce its latest venture: TOMS Roasting Co., an ambitious new brand offshoot that encompasses a chain of coffee bars, a wholesale roasting business and an online subscription-based coffee club. Following the “one for one” business model that TOMS first pioneered with its shoes (donating a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair sold), their coffee likewise comes served with a plan for doing social good. In this case, the “give” (in TOMS-speak) is water. For every bag of beans and cup of joe sold, TOMS will provide clean water to a person in one of the communities in Rwanda, Malawai, Guatemala, Honduras or Peru where TOMS sources its beans. The goal is to make “one for one” giving as much of a deeply ingrained part of their customers’ daily routines as their morning coffee. Reaction to this new venture has been overwhelmingly positive, with celebrities and average Joes alike singing the company’s praises on social media. Actress Olivia Wilde (@oliviawilde) tweeted, “Caffeine with a cause? Don’t mind if I do. I’m helping @TOMS’ mission to provide clean water.” Twitter_reaction1 Twitter user @hopevandy said, “TOMS is now selling coffee. My life is now complete.” It’s hard to ask for a more enthusiastic endorsement than that. Twitter_reaction2 While only time will tell if TOMS Roasting Co. is truly a sustainable business venture, it’s certainly emerged onto the scene with a well-caffeinated jolt.

Vogue bows to pop culture.

Jennifer Lawrence. Jessica Chastain. Kate Winslet. Sandra Bullock. Michelle Obama. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Which of these things is not like the other? On March 21, Vogue magazine proudly unveiled the cover of its April 2014 issue, featuring none other than tabloid power-duo Kim Kardashian and Kanye West (or as they’re known in pop culture circles by their portmanteau, “Kimye"). Immediately, the backlash was swift and vehement, with fans decrying that their Fashion Bible of Record had seemingly fallen prey to the most plebeian fate of catering to the lowest common denominator. Actress Sarah Michelle Gellar tweeted, “Well…I guess I’m canceling my Vogue subscription. Who’s with me???” – a message that has since been retweeted nearly 10,000 times and favored by almost 14,000 users. Vogue_SMG Another fan responded on Facebook, proclaiming the cover “The official death of Vogue” (a comment which has since received more than 1,500 likes). Vogue_death And while this one cover won’t likely be the singular undoing of this century-old prestige brand, it’s certainly a glaring misstep – one that’s likely to haunt its reputation for some time to come. So how can you ensure that your next big idea follows in the successful footsteps of TOMS Roasting Co. and doesn’t result in a disaster of Kimye-sized proportions? Follow these three commandments of brand evolution:

The three commandments of brand evolution

1. To thine own self be true.

On the surface, coffee does not seem like the next logical evolutionary step for a brand best known as a shoe company. After all, no one expects Nike to step up to the plate and start roasting beans anytime soon. However, shoes are not the core of the TOMS brand. It’s their mission: one for one. Toms_mission And by branching out into coffee, TOMS has created an opportunity for its fans to live that mission every day, not only when they need a new pair of shoes. As Mycoskie explained during an interview with TODAY, “I’ve been saying in the office, ‘Let’s start our day by improving someone else’s.’” By contrast, according to their own mission statement, “the foundation of Vogue’s leadership and authority is the brand’s unique role as a cultural barometer for a global audience. Vogue places fashion in the context of culture and the world we live in — how we dress, live and socialize; what we eat, listen to and watch; who leads and inspires us. Vogue immerses itself in fashion, always leading readers to what will happen next. Thought-provoking, relevant and always influential, Vogue defines the culture of fashion.” Juxtaposed against that is Kim Kardashian. She became a household name as a result of an illicit tape. She’s cemented her celebrity status with a basic cable TV reality show and an omnipresent claim on the tabloid headlines. She designs a clothing line sold in Sears. Which part of that is cohesive with a brand that wants to be “a cultural barometer for a global audience”? Vogue built its name as a brand of high-end aspiration. It’s not supposed to be a clothing catalog; it’s meant to be escapist fantasy. Kim and Kanye are as mass and mainstream as it gets. And Vogue’s readers (and perhaps now former subscribers) saw right through this stunt for what it is: a desperate, grasping, Hail Mary attempt to cling to relevancy in a world where print media outlets are a dying breed.

2. Know thy tribe.

For TOMS, branching out into the coffee business is not a move without risk. After all, there’s no lack of competition in the marketplace. However, TOMS knows its tribe. Customers who buy TOMS do so for a reason: to make a difference with their dollars. With their shoes, TOMS has cultivated with a distinctive style. Their signature beachy canvas slip-ons can be spotted at 20 paces, making a fashion statement that says, “I care.” TOMS knows their customers are torch-bearers who will champion their latest cause, proudly carrying their TOMS coffee bags and cups as a beacon of consumerism with a social conscience. And again, this is where Vogue seemingly overestimated the sheepish loyalty of its tribe. Perhaps the inherent danger in being a self-proclaimed arbiter of high culture and fashion is that it’s too tempting to think you’re better than your tribe. You know best, and they’ll love whatever you give them because you tell them to do so. A word to the wise: you’re never above your tribe. If you lead them, it is by permission through hard-won trust. And that permission will be quickly revoked if that trust is betrayed. First, last and always, you must demonstrate that you exist to serve your tribe and have their best interests at heart.

3. Engage your evangelists.

For a month leading up to the big reveal, TOMS teased their fans. They plugged the upcoming announcement. Toms_mark They solicited guesses from their followers about what the new product would be and publicly promoted those who participated. Toms_blankets They challenged their customers to take the cleverly hashtagged “#onedecision pledge” to “change one decision that will help change a life.” Toms_onedecision In doing so, TOMS literally created an appetite for their coffee. Their customers felt a sense of ownership over the new product line before they even knew what it was, and as a result, came locked and loaded with a sense of investment in its success. Of course, this approach only succeeded because they also delivered on the anticipation with a truly great product that follows commandments #1 and 2 above. After all, publicity in the absence of authenticity is just a recipe for disaster, right Vogue?