Monday, January 28, 2008

Moving Beyond Consistency is the Key to Brand Success

The ancient Greek philosophers had it right when they implored us to “Know Thyself”. This is as true for a brand as it is for an individual. Truly understanding who you are at an emotional level as an entity, in this case a brand, and what you promise will mean that there will be a coherence in everything you do.

It also means that you can do away with the slavish application of consistency in the look and feel of your brand and you can tailor your messages to a wider range of increasingly fragmented audiences. To illustrate my point, think of Cate Blanchett. She never wears exactly the same thing all the time but you can instantly describe her style. And your brand is your style, not the clothes themselves.

Consistency of look and feel has long been king. I’ve spent the last ten years on both sides of the fence insisting upon absolute consistency of communications and design – but I now believe the timing is right for us to let go a little.

Consistency also worked for us because of the cost efficiency of recycling the creative idea across a number of media vehicles. Marketing departments had to justify large advertising budgets (usually based around big TV production and media spends), so often the creative material would be used across the multiple brands you had.

Our customers were much easier to target with traditional mass media, which meant that this religiously consistent work was accepted – and it was effective. Back then.

Today, the communication landscape looks very different.

Consistency is virtually impossible with the increasing number of communication channels and those ever-shifting, fragmenting audiences. Today, customers are congregations of like-minded people, with no common language, geographical, demographical, age or gender boundaries who are multi-channel users. They are also becoming more and more successful at filtering out information that doesn’t ring true for them.

So while consistency of look and feel becomes less important, the authenticities of the brand message and the emotion or promise that message delivers becomes more and more crucial. You don’t need the logo in the same place and size, the consistency comes in how the brand acts and what the brand actually does.

To talk to these congregations authentically, I feel we might need to loosen our collective stronghold on look and feel and give them a context through which they can understand our story in their own way.

We’re talking about Virgin again
Virgin is so different across so many markets – from planes to mobile phones – but in all cases, the heart of the Virgin brand promise remains the same. Each element of Virgin is different, but the consistency of the brand lies in their context – the emotion attached to all of their products and services. When you’re buying from Virgin, you know what to expect from every touch point.

They’re completely inconsistent in their communication – they’re always trying new ideas and launching new products and services – but there’s still the context of Virgin attached to everything they do.

As a client, sometimes consistency is seen as a triumph over chaos. But now, we need to accept that it’s ok for a brand to be in chaos if the emotional promise or message is coherent. If the context is there and coherence is there, it doesn’t matter what it looks like the takeout will be the same.

What are you hiding?
I have often seen clients hide behind consistent looking marketing communications. Sometimes it’s easier to be visually consistent than really taking the time to explore the DNA of your brand. But trust me, even if your message is visually consistent, the logo is in the right place and in the right colours with the right headline and supporting copy, it still needs the context of your organisation’s values and the emotional elements to make sense for customers.

Exploring a multi-agency approach
I am a big believer in collaboration across agencies. Not every agency will express your brand in the same way, but then nor do you customers think the same way.

If you, as a brand manager, can let go of the need for absolute consistency, a more collaborative approach with your agencies may just be an effective way of creating ideas that will let you engage in a genuine way with your consumers.

As a marketer, you want your agency partners focused on your business, and not focused on fighting off attacks from the other agencies in the mix. Hashem Bajwa, Digital Strategy Director at Goodby Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco says, "you want the best possible creative talent, and that means listening, learning, experimenting and collaborating together. It also means giving them the trust and clear stewardship they need to do brilliant work."

True brand success is achieved when, irrespective of language, culture or historical background, a diverse range of individuals can articulate what you stand for. It doesn’t matter what your message looks like, who’s saying it or what medium it’s coming through – the brand’s authenticity will shine through.