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Castle Of Duty: Don’t Jump The Shark

I read someplace last week that the latest Call of Duty video game earned $550 million in its first three days of release. That easily makes it the biggest entertainment launch of the year. By way of comparison, this summer’s Jurassic World – which set a record for the biggest opening weekend for a movie of all time – brought in just $523 million worldwide when it debuted.

The moral of this story isn’t that COD: Black Ops 3 is a great game (although it is pretty good, even when 13-year-olds are calling me names while they gun me down), it’s that COD in 2015 is pretty much the same game as it was in 2007 when it was rebooted and kicked off all this madness. Activision, the company that makes and markets the COD games has done a good job of keeping its product fresh (they need people to re-buy it every year, after all) without giving up their brand’s equity. The press barely even covered this year’s COD release (they’re tired of writing the same old story over and over, I suppose), but it didn’t matter. Activision told its customers what they wanted to hear and those customers showed their loyalty.

Now take a look at another popular entertainment property, the television program Castle on ABC. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s sort of a modern take on the early 80’s classic Hart to Hart (with less waka waka disco music and more CSI blood and guts). Castle has been a hit for ABC since 2009, winning lots of awards and scoring big, consistent ratings. But something happened over the summer. The writers got bored. The cast decided they wanted to be artists. Something. Because this fall they took the entire premise that they’ve been working on for the past six years – two attractive people fall in love while solving mysteries – and inexplicably threw it out the window by breaking them up. It was a whiplash-inducing change, and it threw the show’s audience into shock. Ratings plummeted, fan forums exploded and even yawning critics took notice, piling on with scathing reviews.

Castle’s team had thrown on leather jackets and ugly blue swim trunks and less-than-gracefully jumped the shark. They disregarded one of marketing’s main rules: if you’ve got positive brand equity, be careful with it. That doesn’t mean you should never change anything. Change is healthy, as long as it’s for the right reasons. If Castle’s fans had been clamoring for a revamp, then things would be different. But the only people that were tired of the program’s format were those on the inside – a common phenomenon in marketing. When we worked for a bank and research showed that their target audience considered them old and stuffy, then a brand shift was called for (and it worked perfectly). But we never suggest change for change’s sake. We suggest change when it improves a brand’s position, and only when it improves a brand’s position.

Momentum – especially positive momentum – isn’t easy to come by in marketing nowadays. Why sacrifice it if you don’t have to? Just ask the folks who make and market the COD games. A ten degree change in your marketing direction maintains almost all of your forward inertia, while a 90-degree turn gives all of it up (and risks flipping you over).

Don’t jump the shark with your branding! Get some help and some new ideas – instead of a stunt, a strategic course correction might be just what your brand needs to succeed.