What’s the plan of action if your sales are flat and competitors are biting at your heels? Evolving to stay relevant is one thing. But bulldozing over your identity and losing sight of who you are, can be a road to ruin.

It’s been eleven years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, since dubbed ‘America’s comeback city’. From the start of reconstruction, the emphasis has been on not just restoring the levies and neighbourhoods – but on making the whole city ‘better’.

Not everyone’s ecstatic about the shiny new vibe. What happens when one too many high-rise hotels spring along the edges of the French Quarter? Or when locals are completely priced out of historic neighbourhoods? Speaking to VICE News last year, one resident put it like this, “They’re trying to tame New Orleans like it’s a circus animal.”

There’s a desire to make the city bigger, better and more successful. But with this comes a real danger; that by changing too much, the city’s identity starts to get buried. The fear is that it starts being less like New Orleans, Louisiana and more like Anywhere-ville, USA. And who wants to go there?

Whether it’s a new ring road or car park for a city – or a new service range for a company, change is an essential part of life. City planners have a whole community to answer to; if the heart of a city’s identity is about to be knocked down or over-gentrified, they can expect an uproar. But what about companies? Faced with a challenge, is there a tendency to play fast and loose with what makes us unique?

Take the example of a business dealing with a change in market conditions. The call goes out, “We need to widen our appeal”. And, either intentionally or not, the company sets about concreting over its identity; over everything that made it unique and valuable in the first place. Various business failures over recent years remind us of a valuable lesson: unwittingly turning your organisation into ‘Anywhere-ville’ is seldom the smart way to address whatever challenges you are faced with.

Mind the Gap: don’t try to be everything, to everyone

For midrange high street fashion retailers, these are tough times. On the one hand, there’s the challenge of keeping physical shopfronts relevant in the age of online shopping. Meanwhile, the big names in fast fashion (the likes of Primark and H&M) are eyeing up your market share; ready to undercut you on price and lure in your customers.

This is precisely the problem faced by Gap – that one-time colossus of khaki and denim. The last decade has seen the company flounder as it comes to terms with this new trading landscape, culminating last year in the closure of 25% of its North American stores. One response was a short-lived logo change. Next came a new ad campaign, “Dress Normal”.

However, there was one big problem with this approach; it turned out that that no-one actually wanted to dress “normal”. For one thing, normal “makes the brand look boring at best, average at worst”. More fundamentally, as Ruth Bernstein put it in Ad Week, Gap was “never about doing things ‘normally’”. Think back to those iconic TV ads of the nineties: effortless cool, understatement, aspiration, individuality; these were the hallmarks of the company’s identity. Normal wasn’t in the mix.

Bernstein’s take on Gap’s problems is as follows: “They need to get their mojo back by resurrecting their innovator spirit”. It’s about looking at what made the company a success in the first place. Jettisoning or muddying that core identity as part of a quest for wider appeal can very easily drift into blandness, anonymity and irrelevance.

Sharp suits and creme eggs: don’t let your identity leak away

For Austin Reed, the drift into irrelevance proved to be fatal. Just like Gap, it faced challenges from an evolving retail market but couldn’t find a way to keep touch with customers. In its quest to stay afloat, Austin Reed had a wonderful asset to put to work; its pedigree. Yet it failed to capitalise on it in any meaningful way.

As Stephen Doig, The Telegraph’s men’s style editor wondered shortly after the company went into administration, “Austin Reed made little of its heritage – who knew that it was a century old?”. It had started out in 1900 as a cutting-edge business with the mission of making tailor-quality clothing accessible. It had clothed the Beatles. It had even produced Winston Churchill’s siren suits. This heritage was part of its DNA – and yet it seemed to have fallen by the wayside.

“You have to stay true to your heritage; that’s what your brand is about.” – Alice Temperley, Temperley London

If things had gone differently; if the business had made the most of its identity, then Austin Reed might have been able to survive and to carve a name for itself as a classic British brand alongside the likes of Barbour and Burberry – both of whom have managed to capitalise on their identity while still exploring what modern style is all about. Instead, “Treading in rather nondescript waters” was how Doig described the company. Sacrificing quality to cut costs and producing bland offerings, the impression was of a fustier, more expensive version of Burton. There was no longer offer a credible reason to visit it.

Somewhere along the line, Austin Reed appears to have either set aside the core elements of its identity – or else forgotten why they were important. Sometimes this identity erosion can take place bit-by-bit: a challenge arises, and to deal with it, a company makes a decision that chips away at it.

Cadbury seems to have drifted into this camp in recent years after having been bought out by the US company Mondelez. Most notably, the company annoyed fans of gooey fondant and chocolate in 2015 when it changed the recipe of the Cadbury Creme Egg, reportedly taking a hit on sales as a result.

Tweaking a product line is often necessary or desirable for lots of different reasons. It’s just that each time Cadbury does something, whether it’s making bars smaller, ditching Bourneville in favour of Toblerone in its Heroes boxes, or relocating production abroad, there’s a cumulative effect: the logo might be exactly the same, but it can seem as if important parts of what make Cadbury Cadbury are being set aside. And sales-wise, it doesn’t seem to be doing the company any favours.

Keeping your identity shouldn’t prevent you from evolving

IBM has been going for over a hundred years. In terms of products and services, the company is changing all the time – from clocks and scales in the early years, right up to global networks today. Yet the company keeps its identity intact; it’s the go-to name for helping its customers handle information – something that’s constantly being reinforced through its offerings.

In complete contrast, not so long ago, Blockbuster was the go-to name if you wanted to settle in and watch a movie. So much so, that in 2000 the owner of a tiny startup by the name of Netflix approached it to propose a branding partnership. Netflix realised that Blockbuster’s identity was less about going into a physical store to hire a DVD; it was about movie night. The DVD aspect of things could and should be changed. He was apparently laughed out of the room.

If things had gone differently, Blockbuster might have continued as the name associated with movie night; its identity would still be there and would be a lot stronger – even if its business model had moved on.

So change – even radical change – is often vital. But in that process of change, don’t be too quick to throw away where the true value of your business lies.