It’s a sometimes unfortunate fact of consumer life that brands change. Some even disappear entirely: remember Ipana toothpaste, The Argus, Buckley & Nunn or Mark Foy’s? When Leyland stopped making the P-76, consumers may have regretted the loss of jobs in the Australian car industry but ultimately accepted that it was a matter of commercial reality.

So why have the recent changes at Fairfax generated so much controversy and anxiety with respect to the future of The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and other papers in the stable? After all, Fairfax is a commercial entity with executives, directors and shareholders who are free to make lawful business decisions as they see fit. Indeed, some shareholders may be quite rational about job losses and structural changes, seeing them as purely pragmatic business decisions. Other brands that attract the same sort of response from conusmers might be Myer or Grace Brothers, the ABC, the AFL and NRL.

But you certainly don’t have to be a shareholder to feel a sense of ownership of a brand. Creating an emotion-based relationship with customers and a sense that the brand and customers share common, deeply-held values are among the holy grails of contemporary brand-building. Speak to different brand consultants and they’ll give you a bunch of different names and models like “brand resonance” or “brand affinity” but they’re essentially talking about the same thing.

Ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi calls them “lovemarks” — not small welts on a teenager’s neck, but rather brands whose customers exhibit “loyalty beyond reason”. Lovemarks “create… an intimate, emotional connection that you just can’t live without…”.

Advocates for a cultural approach to branding, like Douglas Holt, make the case that the success of some brands can be better understood by considering cultural concepts, above and beyond mere emotion. Iconic brands attain cultural significance by spinning “potent identity myths” that address important social issues and tensions, representing and sharing values we hold dear and views about what’s important in life.

Brands don’t have to be public institutions to become cultural icons. Fairfax has traded on, and heavily promoted, the cultural icon status of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald for years, deliberately positioning the morning broadsheets as the papers of cultural record and the homes of quality journalism.

You might think that having a brand attain lovemark or cultural icon status would be cause to get the champagne corks popping in the marketing department, but it brings with it some significant responsibilities and constraints. Part of Saatchi & Saatchi’s description of a lovemark rightly hints at this darker side: “Take a lovemark away and people will protest its absence… you never want to let go.”

As in any intense relationship, a high degree of emotional attachment may bring a higher risk of infidelity, possessiveness and even crimes of passion. When consumers feel spurned by a brand they love — and a brand they thought loved them — well, sometimes hell hath no fury.

An anecdote emailed to Crikey this week by an Age insider suggests that recently-sacked editor Andrew Jaspan had personal experience of this kind of reaction very early in his tenure at the paper. Jaspan apparently told the newsroom that his wife was being abused by other parents when she picked up their kids from a Melbourne private school: “We know who you are. Tell Andrew to stop [email protected]#king around with our paper!”

According to our correspondent, Age journalists found this disturbing but much less surprising than Jaspan’s reaction.

“The damn cheek of these people,” he allegedly exclaimed.

“They think it’s their newspaper!”

Threaten to change a brand that is both beloved and iconic and you activate aggrieved consumers loyal to the cultural myth, who are armed with both passion and a culturally-based sense of righteous indignation. This is a potent formula that unions, politicians and even competitors can tap into. Ignore it, or fail to recognise it, and the brand owner risks having the very foundations of the brand’s previous successes undermined.

The world’s biggest brand, Coke, learned this — to its significant cost — in 1985 when it changed its decades-old formula and launched “New Coke”. As Time magazine reported at the time, many consumers felt that tinkering with the taste of The Real Thing “was like tampering with motherhood, baseball and the flag”.

The Coca-Cola Company now looks back and celebrates the infamous New Coke fiasco as part of “Coke Lore”, claiming that it stands today as “testimony to the power of taking intelligent risks”.

Will Fairfax be able to make the same claim in 20 years’ time?

Peter Fray

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