Is Your Brand Coherent?

There are two types of brand; generalist brands which are aimed at multiple market segments; and specialist brands; which are often targeted on a single market segment.

Generalist brands often have products which are sub brands.  For example, Heinz is famous for its 57 varieties (in fact there has always been far more than 57 Heinz product lines). Heinz Tomato ketchup is a sub-brand which has a number of product variants e.g. reduced sugar content and organic ketchup.  Generalist brands demand a differentiated marketing strategy.

Specialist brands have products which are variants. Morgan is a specialist sports car brand aimed at vintage motoring enthusiasts. The brands products are variants of the vintage sports car design (including the three wheel tricycle). Jim Dunlop is the go to brand for guitar plectrums and a wide variety of plectrums is produced using different materials to give distinct tones.  Specialist brands require a niche marketing strategy.

There are commonalities between generalist and specialist brands.  Both have physical and intangible attributes.  Both have core and peripheral facets. To be successful and to grow brands, these attributes and facets have to be coherent.

Commonly, brands grow through multiplication.  growth through the introduction of product variants.  In this way specialist brands can grow to become a generalist brand and market expansion occurs.  There is a gradual shift from a niche strategy to a differentiated strategy.

Often growth requires adaptation of a brand’s products as the initial market is expanded and growth may also require the adoption of new distribution channels.  The marketing mix may need to be adapted to suit the requirements of these new distribution channels. Care needs to be taken to deal with potential channel conflicts e.g. pricing disparities.

Often market expansion to grow a brand means going international. In such circumstances brands may need to be adapted to suit different cultural and social norms.  The use of local agents and distributors may mean that there is local reinterpretation of brands.

What is certain is that growing a brand introduces diversity.  So how do you grow a brand without losing the necessary facets and attributes of the brand identity?

The answer is the creation of brand coherence.  Growth of a brand should not be seen purely in terms of increases in sales and profits. You also need to grow the brand’s reputation, identity and its defences against competition.

This means that brand growth requires your business to be coherent in everything it does.

Brands are constructed in stages; from top to bottom.  Senior managers will create a brand platform, the core of a brand; its identity.  Functional management will then create products services and experiences which fit that brand identity.

Consumers however view brands in the opposite way. They see the products, services and experiences first.  Consumers assess the essence of a brand through their expenditure and the processes they have to go through to access and use the brand. The brand identity is perceived through repetition of this process.

A consumers first contact with a brand is the beginning of a journey to the understanding of a brand’s identity.

So managers across an organisation from Marketing to HR, Finance to Operations, need to know the perception an organisation is trying to create in the minds of consumers with respect to the brand.  They must be sure to eliminate that which does not conform to the required brand perception.  So a successful brand, to be coherent external to the organisation, needs strong internal policing of brand activities.

You need to build a brand through specific brand values, its exclusiveness and by the creation of motivational added value.

You need to teach and repeat brand coherence over time.

However, repetition of brand attributes to build coherence does not mean uniformity. Repeating an identical message over and over again is boring. To drill your brand coherence into the minds of consumers, you need surprise.  However if you overdo the variety in your message, your brand identity will turn out fuzzy and incoherent.

Brands need family resemblance, but everything should not be cloned. There and be difference but within a family resemblance.  The Kardashians are a family brand but each member of the family is different.  However each Kardashian shares family traits.

So when growing a brand you need to retain core family attributes and the core identity whilst carefully introducing variety and surprise.

A brand name is a point of reference and an indicator of added value. If you put a product under a brand name, you are attaching that brand identity to it.  If the product does bot conform to expected brand attributes, it is incoherent, and can risk the brand as a whole. Consumers must be able to visualise the family identity in the product.  Critical in this are product packaging, labelling and other physical elements of the brand.

If extending a brand, the introduction of big changes can weaken family identity.  Family identity cannot be reduced solely to physical appearance. You need to create and sustain the brand halo.

Brand coherence is not brand uniformity. An excess of uniformity kills consumer desire. Coherence involves little surprises but the maintenance of core brand values.

Brand coherence is a see-saw balance between those surprises and brand specifics.

Making your brand authentic

Traditionally, when the word authenticity was mentioned by senior executives, it was defined by the term ‘the genuine article’.  It was a reference to official goods as opposed to counterfeits.  Authority was conferred on a product through the enforcement of intellectual property and the use of legal force in terms of both criminal and civil sanctions. Thus authenticity was conferred on products by their manufacturer.

Today, authenticity is conferred through the perception of consumers.  To develop an authentic brand story, you must buy in to the perceptions of your target consumers and fit within their concept of the truth.

What recent political campaigns have shown is that something doesn’t need to be true or factual to confer authenticity.  Leave won the EU referendum campaign through the widespread dissemination of lies and myth.  They plastered a bus with a false and misleading statements about “£350 million a week for the NHS”.  This was a lie as the UK only ever paid a fraction of that sum to the EU as its membership fee.  Donald Trump continues to send out false and misleading messages.  For example, this week he tweeted about a large rise in the crime rate in Germany.  In truth crime in Germany has fallen to its lowest level in over a decade.

Obviously there are laws to prevent the dissemination of false or misleading statements about products (e.g. the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008) and there are far less robust controls in politics.  However the Trump and leave campaigns won because their messages fitted best with the perception of the truth amongst the target audience.  Common sense and facts did not matter, the misleading messages fitted with the target audiences beliefs.  Both Trump and Leave cynically targeted the less well-educated and the politically dispossessed with fairy stories and the creation of a false Utopia.  In the long run the lies told by Trump and Leave will be exposed and the effects of a policy based on lies will be felt.  But politicians aren’t trying to maintain a product over decades.  Their concern is for the immediate campaign, not the campaigns of ten years time.  They are quite happy to deliver a prospectus which contains false authenticity because by the time the effects are felt, the ‘product they sell will be gone.

That is not an appropriate strategy if you are trying to develop brand authenticity in the long-term.

However, as with politics, something doesn’t need to be true to be authentic.

Charles Morgan, of the Morgan Motor Company, which makes ‘classic British sports cars’ said:

“Rather than a brand, I think it’s an attempt to interest the cult and to keep the cult going.  we like telling stories people can tell in the pub and that makes them feel part of the family.  And so the brand is made up around a series of myths; some of which are true, some of which are owned – The one about the wooden chassis in France, we have tried and tried to get rid of that, but it still persists; and I think eventually we’re going to have to say, “Okay, yeah, yeah, it’s true”.

Of course, parts of a Morgan car are constructed from wood, but the chassis is not and never has been.  The wooden chassis myth is part of the subjective nature of brand authenticity.  The fact Morgan talks of myths, truthful and owned, is part of the firm’s creation of an alluring mystique which is authentic in the minds of its target customer group.

So why does brand authenticity matter:7

  1. Consumer brand choice is an extension of their desired self.  They use brands to achieve self-actualisation (the peak of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Consumers use brands to confirm a preferred identity but they also go further and use brands to connect with a preferred community.  A brand is a connection to those who think alike.
  2. Authenticity can increase brand equity.  Brands considered authentic are often viewed more favourably by consumers and therefore are seen to have greater worth.  Authenticity can lead to greater loyalty, more word of mouth communication, helps to create brand communities, makes consumers more tolerant of failures and often acts as a defence in tougher times.  In market research, if consumers see a brand as authentic, it is an indicator of purchasing intention.
  3. Authentic brands are often long-lasting.  Their product life cycle is long or cyclical.  Brands seen as authentic can persist for decades.  The UK has two of the oldest brands in the world, Lyon’s Golden Syrup and Bass beer.  Both these brands have persisted for nearly two centuries.

Developing authenticity provides an ongoing point of difference.  It can also provide excitement and élan.

For example, Lexus cars are seen by consumers as technically excellent but boring.  Alfa Romeo cars have a record of inconsistent performance (particularly electrical faults) but they are seen as having soul.

Here are five strategies for building brand authenticity:

  1.  Become part of the community:  Assimilate the psyche of nations and sub-cultures.  What is Australia without Vegemite? What is France without Champagne?  What is London without the red double-decker bus?  What is Scotland without Tartan?  Being part of the community makes it difficult for new market entrants to gain a foothold.  If you are part of the community, buying your product is an act of identity, not just loyalty.
  2. Challenge conventions:  It is often authentic to go against conventions; although admittedly that sounds counter-intuitive.  For example, nineteenth century Britain the accepted culture was one of modernisation and technological advance.  William Morris, patron of the arts and crafts movement went against the zeitgeist.  Through Liberty he chose to champion artisan skills and a culture of craft.  He espoused a simpler age based on nature, tradition and emotion.  Liberty still exist to this day.  Punk arose in the late 1970’s as a reaction to the convention’s of progressive rock.  Where many saw the future of popular music as complex and taking influence from classical music, Punk looked to the simpler three chord structures previously seen in fifties rock and roll.  these simpler structures were seen as more authentic than prog.  Dyson are all about challenging convention.  Dyson’s technology is seen as authentic because it challenges vacuum cleaner designs which hadn’t changed in decades.  It is authentic to target the rebellious spirit in all of us.
  3. Stick to your roots:  Authentic brands are stubborn.  It is often a convention in marketing that to sustain a brand over time, you need to adapt to changing environmental, societal and technological factors.  However brands recognised as authentic often ignore societal change and stick to their roots.  In fact there could be a consumer backlash if they do not.  For example, Irn Bru recently changed its recipe.  It reduced the sugar content as a result of a tax introduced by the government on sugary soft drinks. Barr’s faced a backlash from its customers in Scotland who were unhappy at the recipe change.  In contrast, Coca Cola accepted the new tax and raised prices rather than lower the sugar content.  Perhaps Coke was ‘once bitten, twice shy’ following the failure of the New Recipe Coke in the late 1980’s.  Brand history is critical to authenticity.  Heritage, sincerity and love of production are central to consumers’ perception of authenticity.
  4. Love of craft:  Are your people passionate about your products and services?  Do senior managers spend time on the shop floor?  Consumer’s see authenticity when a firm shows true love of their craft.  Morgan cars are one such example.  It has retained the craft of hand-built coach work when other car manufacturers have factories filled with robots.  The firm is family owned and its managers own and drive its products.  Currently there is a group of Star Wars fans who want to remake The Last Jedi ‘properly’.  They feel the latest film in the series didn’t fit with the values of the ‘Star Wars’ brand and with its established conventions.  Brands run and staffed by enthusiasts are seen as authentic.
  5. Business Amateurism:  Authentic brands are often run by people who the general public see as amateurs.  A fine example is Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream.  In the minds of many consumers, Ben and Jerry are two hippies who decided to sell ice cream.  They are not seen as hard-nosed businessmen.  The impression is that such firms reject market research and use gut feeling.  Of course, this is nonsense but the brand is seen as authentic as it has developed the myth of the amateur.  Amateurs have redeeming features.  They do it for love rather than remuneration.  They think differently (often through a lack of training).  Amateurs are often unconcerned about fame, paying bills or meeting targets.  They are viewed as grounded, humble and playful.

Authenticity is shown, not described.  Overt claims of being authentic are often seen as hype.  Such claims may make genuine brand claims seem fake.

For cultural immersion, small details and one-off experiences can count as much as extensive research programmes.  It is appropriate to immerse yourself in the market culture.  I have just watched Darkest Hour, the film-based on the early days of Churchill’s premiership during World War 2.  The critical scene is where Churchill takes a short journey on the London underground and ask the opinions of the commuters in the tube car.  This is what he bases his policy on, not the statistics produced by his civil servants.  Ugg, the sheepskin boot manufacturer takes a great interest in the views of its ‘brand fans’.  Ugg invites these fans to have work experience in the company where their individual views can be examined. Ugg fans directly impact decision-making.

Employing a brand historian can help develop authenticity.  A brand’s past can inform its future.  authenticity can be built through a company’s history and the colourful characters associated with a brand.  How many firms advertise themselves through the quirks of their creator?  For example, Huntley and Palmer biscuits sponsored Captain Scott’s expedition to the south pole.  Despite the expedition being a disaster, it is seen by many British consumers as an expression of British bulldog spirit and bravery against adversity.  Huntley and Palmer’s exploit  their history to develop brand authenticity.

Authentic brands are not afraid of letting their consumers in on their processes.  It is often critical to firms to get their consumers’ views on new technological innovations, new recipes and new products.  For example many software manufactures use beta testing.  They get trusted consumers to use prototype software and to identify bugs and potential improvements.  Showing you trust your consumers with your ‘in development’ products builds the impression of partnership, shared values and thus authenticity.

Authenticity can be developed through the exploitation of lucky breaks.  Ugg boots started life as a specialist product for male surfers.  they were designed to keep surfers feet warm when they got out of the cold ocean.  The brand got a lucky break when young female consumers saw the boots as comfortable and fashionable.  Dyson took advantage of a market where product design was assumed to be unchanging.  He was also lucky in that the market leader, Hoover, was in financial difficulty following the Sinclair C5 debacle and a disastrous free flights offer.  Dyson took advantage with new technological designs and fashionable design.

Creating and developing brand authenticity is a challenge.  It is critical to develop open-ended and rich stories rather than technical position statements.  It is important to espouse enduring values, emphasise love of craft and to develop a powerful organisational memory.

Why you need a Story

A few days ago I was perusing my twitter feed when I noticed a sponsored tweet from an experiential marketing agency.  To paraphrase, the tweet said, “Forget stories, marketing is now about developing experiences”.

This statement worried me, it smacked of a poorly trained marketer overly focused on one aspect of the profession ( I also see similar messages from individuals and agencies focused on digital marketing and social media).

These individuals tend to concentrate on a single element of the promotional or marketing mix at the exclusion of all others.

The above tweet worried me, not its focus on the development of experiences but its instruction that stories should be forgotten.

Stories are an integral part of our lives.  They help us make sense of our world and our role within it.  Human beings have been telling stories since we were living in caves and eating mammoth.  Every aspect of our communication and culture is packed with stories from literature, music and art to politics and religion.

It is accepted by most sociologists that we do not replace our cultural norms; we add to them.  For example, even if you have no particular faith, the religion under which you were brought up, or which is embedded in your cultural history will inform your character and decisions.

To argue that businesses should forget storytelling and focus solely on the development of experiences is wrong.  Storytelling remains a critical part of developing a marketing communications strategy.

Baker and Gower (2010) found that stories help sell products in that they are critical to selling, communication, change management, leadership, organisational learning and even to design.

Woodside et al (2008), referring to blogging as a form of communication, found that this form of storytelling could be a more effective marketing tool than traditional websites.

Stories matter in marketing because they match the way people think and process information.  For example, most competitors at memory competitions learn long lists of complex information by placing clues to the sequence in a story, a journey with clues in the narrative to the identity of the upcoming items.  Our brains are hard-wired to remembering stories.

McKee (2003) also emphasises that stories are critical to effective promotion because they allow customers to develop an emotional attachment to a business’s goods and services.

A story consists of two elements, a theme and a plot. The latter informs the former.  For example, John Le Carre’s  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a spy thriller plot but its theme is one of false personal allegiance and lost relationships. Moby Dick is the plot of a hunt for a whale but its theme is obsession and revenge.

Theme has the following elements:

  1. Hardship – The protagonists have to endure hardship and overcome obstacles.  At the end of the story something has to have been earned.
  2. Reciprocity – There has to be an appreciation of fair and equal exchange.
  3. Defining Moments – There have to be points which stand out and which change lives.
  4. Anticipation – There has to be a sense of hope for the future.

Plot has the following elements:

  1.  Crisis – Anticipation is often followed by negative feelings that a crisis will disrupt the path to the future.
  2. Help along the way – Crisis is mediated by the arrival of unexpected help e.g. advice from a friend or mentor which results in a period of hard work and endurance.
  3. A goal is achieved – This follows the overcoming of obstacles and discomfort. Then there is time for an appropriate celebration.

Syd Field, Hollywood’s favourite script doctor, teaches a framework for storytelling which he describes as a paradigm.  This is a three act story structure for cinema.

Act one is the set up. This introduces the stories protagonists and sets up the narrative.  This act ends with a major plot point which drives the rest of the story.

Act Two is where the story truly begins.  Here the protagonists encounter a series of conflicts and crises which they must overcome.  At the midpoint of this act, ‘something big happens’.  This is a major story element which will reinvigorate the audiences interest in the story.  At the end of the second act there is another major plot point, a significant set back the protagonist must overcome.

The third act starts with the protagonist overcoming the setback and the story rises to a climax, often a showdown between the main protagonist and the antagonist.  After the climax there may be a coda where the protagonist celebrates their victory over the antagonist.  A fine example of this is the ending of the first three Star Wars films which all end with the rebels celebrating their victory (or in the case of The Empire Strikes Back, their survival) against the Empire.

Field’s paradigm is prevalent in most blockbuster movies and, as more and more novelists write with a potential film in mind, book fiction.  It is even exhibited in long-running advertising campaigns such as the Nescafe Gold romance, the BT couple and even the Compare the Market meerkats.

Field warns against the use of stereotypes (which are often used in advertising as shortcuts) and against story structures which are too tightly aligned to his paradigm.

Stories can be classified into four groups:

  1.  Myths and Origins – How an organisation started and overcame early difficulties.  How values were embedded in a firm’s current status.  This is central to the advertising of Thatcher’s Cider, Stella Artois lager and Scottish Widows.
  2. Corporate Prophecies – Stories about an organisation’s future often based on its past.  The current series of television advertisements by Honda follow this pattern where a racing driver starts a journey in a vintage car and ends up being launched into space in a rocket.
  3. Archived Narratives – Stories which trace an organisation’s or product’s history.  These are often used following corporate mergers or rebranding campaigns.  Fairy liquid, a few years ago, ran a series of advertisements celebrating the longevity of the brand name with clips from their television advertising over sixty years.  These advertisements told the audience two things, that the brand retained its long-standing values and that it was a brand generations of families had trusted.
  4. Hero Stories – How people from the organisation have overcome difficulties.  The current advertising campaign by the Open University follows this model, where former students describe their lives before study (unemployment, drudgery) and how it has been improved through gaining higher education qualifications.  The British Navy’s advertising also follows this path with the example of a sailor whose life was going nowhere before he joined the Navy and how the service had given him skills and self-respect.

Certainly there has been a rise in the use of experiential marketing in recent years as new technology has widened the interactions between brands and their customers.

Experiential marketing can be defined as:

The process of identifying and satisfying customer needs and aspirations by properly engaging with them using two-way communication which bring brand personalities to life and which add value in the minds of the target audience.

It is the development of customer-centric processes.

Shirra Smilansky in Experiential Marketing uses the acronym BETTER to describe aspects of the discipline.  It stands for:

  • Brand personality
  • Emotional Connection
  • Target Audience
  • Two-way Interactions
  • Exponential elements
  • Reach

The first three elements of this acronym have storytelling at their core.

A major aspect of experiential marketing is developing ‘day in the life’ stories of target customer types.

To develop a brand personality, you need a story.  To develop an emotional connection, you need a compelling story which provides authenticity, positive connections and personal meaningfulness.

Storytelling is critical to the development of a brand strategy.  Only after a consumer is emotionally connected to a brand can you introduce sensory rich experiences.  Stories link your brand to your intended target audience (We want people like us or people who want to be like us).

Stories are critical to the development of compelling experiences.  If your experiences are not based within the structure of a story it is likely that you will fail to engage with your target audience.  That means weak customer loyalty and retention.

Rather than replacing your brand story with empty experiences, you need to develop customer experiences which build on and enhance your brand story.