Avoiding conflict between online and offline expression of the brand
An exercise I sometimes put before people in a marketing meeting is asking each person to write down the personality type that best describes the brand we are meeting about. It certainly is not an original exercise, but it never loses its value. If there are eight people in the meeting a good likelihood exists that no more than two or three will see the brand the same way.
Consistency has always been an issue in marketing. It can arise when the agency of record makes a significant team change. Consistency commonly becomes an issue when a client changes agencies. And consistency is an inevitable challenge when a company retains multiple agencies on a specialty basis such as having one for offline marketing and another for online marketing.
A brand can be compromised by inconsistencies in a number of ways. Style differences in communications are one way. This applies to both visual and semantic style differences. Major brands typically devote considerable effort to achieve consistency in visual styles. Typically a brand style book describes how a logo is to be reproduced and used or not used. The style book also carries specifications for colors and fonts to be used in communications.
One thing rarely addressed in style books is a brand’s semiotic profile. Semiotics is the study of symbols and symbol systems. A logo is the semiotic heart of a brand, but a strong brand depends on a well-managed system of symbols.
Take McDonald’s. It is one of the best managed brands on the planet. First, it knows who it is and generally acts with well-disciplined consistency to express itself. Like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s is an example of the archetypal Innocent. Its golden arches are its primary logo, but its iconic clown Ronald McDonald plays a crucial role in defining the brand as the Innocent.
Were McDonald’s to create a new character to represent a different archetype, say one that conformed to the archetypal Joker such as Burger King’s silly King mask does – it could harm the brand. Seeing an old friend sporting a new personality is unnerving. This is the most important reason for establishing and maintaining a brand style book.
It takes a long time to position a brand in the mind of the market, but a single ill-conceived campaign can destroy years of investment in brand equity-building. New Coke is a classic example of an ill-conceived campaign that Coke was fortunate to survive, but Oldsmobile never survived the infamous ”This isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile.” Clearly, the creative director on that campaign did not understand how people cognitively and emotionally process brands.
A brand’s semiotic profile should be described in detail in the brand style book. The discussion should be supported by research. Inevitably, a new agency, a new creative director or a new CMO will appear on the scene with his or her ideas about how to make the brand really sing to the market and end up off key.
Importantly, semiotics is not just about visual symbols. It extends into a brand’s narrative. The Hallmark brand understands this. The brand’s lexical executions are tightly managed to reflect the Lover archetype it represents.
A brand’s narrative is a crucial factor in how consumers process a brand. The narrative voice must be consistent with the brand’s archetypal personality. When Coke tried a slapstick comedic approach several years ago, like Pepsi does very well, it bombed. Innocents don’t do slapstick.
I want to close this post with a question to companies that have a brand to develop and protect: Do you have a brand style book? If the answer is “No” I suggest that developing one should be top priority in these times when consumers rely more than ever on brands they deem trustworthy.
These are challenging times for brands. On one hand every product recall, every news article about corporate ethics and every aggravating customer experience makes consumers more skeptical and less trusting of brands and companies behind brands. On the other hand, once they feel they can trust a brand they breathe a sigh of relief and get on with their lives. But inconsistency in brand messaging is a major challenge not to be underestimated.