In December, the U.S. Postal Service announced it was eliminating first class next-day delivery for stamped letters and closing half its mail-processing centers to cut costs.
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updated 12/15/2011 11:18:50 AM ET 2011-12-15T16:18:50

Prophet recently conducted a spot survey of some 5,000 U.S. consumers to see which brands they’d put on the deathwatch for anytime between now and 2015.

Anyone who even skims the news headlines will find their rankings no big surprise: Eastman Kodak topped the list with 27 percent of the group, with Netflix and the U.S. Post Office coming in with 19 percent and 18 percent of the vote. RIM (Blackberry) came as fourth most likely to fail (14 percent), and Sears came in fifth (11 percent).

Forbes.com slideshow: See the 5 brands most likely to be gone by 2015

But what struck me about this exercise was less the polled group’s choices and more their observations about these brands’ failings:

About Netflix: “They have shown they don’t know their own clients. They are not even clear with what they want as a company. It is a mess.”

U.S. Post Office: “Inefficient and obsolete.”

What emerged through the commentary was the identification of a distinct pattern of worst practices, and none of these struggling companies was seen as being guilty of having only one in play. Clearly, John and Joan Q. Public don’t need brilliant brand diagnosticians to help them figure out why a brand loses relevance. (And it’s a small wonder that a study by Havas Media Group found most people wouldn’t care if 70 percent of all brands disappeared today.)

Among the most common failings to emerge:

Lacking an understanding of what customers want, and providing a poor customer experience as a result. Consider Best Practice companies like Nordstrom, Amazon, Disney and Zappos, all of which make the end-to-end customer experience the mantra by which they live.

Lagging on innovation, and in response to competitive and environmental pressures. Although Apple sets a high bar for best practices (how many categories can one company single-handedly create, after all?), we’ve also been impressed with U.K. retailer Tesco, an early pioneer of self-checkout, the “club” store concept, and online shopping.

Pricing missteps and insensitivities. On the best practice side of this sticky wicket are brands that aren’t afraid to buck accepted industry policy. U.S. Cellular, with its Belief Project, has built legions of loyal customers by doing away with the ubiquitous contract for many, along with a variety of “nickel and dime” charges and fees, while Southwest Airlines has similarly grown goodwill and market share by not charging the standard airline industry baggage fees.

Ineffective management and outmoded business models. Consider ZipCar as a Best Practice example for having supplanted the traditional car rental approach, as an on-demand car sharing membership organization for urban dwellers.

Failure to keep up with the digital revolution. For best practices, think streaming, as per NBC/Hulu’s success with video and Spotify’s with music, the New York Times’ much lauded mobile app for news content, and the American Red Cross’ embrace of social media to facilitate emergency fundraising.

While we did not conduct this study five years ago, my guess is that brands such as Ford, Motorola, Xerox and others could well have made such a list back then. All have adopted one or more of the best practices I identified to turn their games around. So there may, in fact, be hope for the five brands most identified for failure by our survey group.

As we head into 2012, it’s a pretty safe bet that the business landscape will continue to be littered with casualties of a limping economy combined with insurmountably poor management practices. The question is whether those that are struggling the hardest can adjust fast enough to survive.

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© 2012 Forbes.com

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