Of Consistency and Clown Doctors

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Imagine you’ve made an appointment with your family doctor to discuss the shooting pangs in your chest and the fact that your left arm is going numb five or six times a day.

You’re waiting in an examination room in one of those flattering gowns. Suddenly, your doctor pops in wearing in a polka-dotted clown suit, a conical cap and a red rubber nose, laughing maniacally as he hoses you down with his seltzer bottle.

This would create what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance” – that uncomfortable tension that comes from having conflicting thoughts. When you experience cognitive dissonance, you can address it by changing your behavior, ignoring the dissonance, altering the importance of the cognitions and so on.

When you create brand dissonance, you force a reaction from your customer that’s not likely to favor you. Consumers have too many other choices and too little patience or time for surprises.

Brand Dissonance and How to Avoid It

Your own brand may sometimes behave like a doctor in a clown suit. For instance, your customers may get a great experience from some of your salespeople, but a lousy experience from others. Your marketing may chase trends or the competition instead of staying true to your brand’s core.

Great brands are built through consistency and in no other way. So how do you get consistency? It begins with a robust brand positioning and a clear brand story – so that everyone inside and outside your brand knows exactly what it stands for, why it exists and what makes it different.

Clarity is key. A muddled message morphs from one telling to the next. With FedEx, the story was that you could count on it: “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight” – adding “absolutely, positively” to turn it from a maybe to a certainty. Can’t get much clearer than that.

Once you’ve settled on a clear positioning and story, never deviate. Think of your brand as the star in a major motion picture. You have characters that behave in a certain way whenever you see them, like Cool Hand Luke, Danny Ocean or Batman. Indiana Jones, for example, would never say, “Know what? I’m just not in a quest mood today. I’d rather finish my needlepoint.”

Consistency keeps people coming back. Consumers don’t like surprises. That’s why, when Coca-Cola abruptly changed its formula and introduced New Coke in 1985, consumers reacted as though America had come under nuclear attack. In the same way, it would be wrong for Red Bull to introduce Red Bull Sleepy Head – just as it was wrong for Mountain Dew to come out with decaffeinated Mountain Dew. Without caffeine, it might as well be Mountain Don’t.

The next step on the road to consistency is to reward the right behaviors, the ones that line up with your brand positioning and story. For example, if you have a service business or a retail organization, you should take your pulse constantly, making sure your people and/or products stay faithful to your brand promise. Maybe you follow up with customers after every interaction, maybe you hire secret shoppers. However you decide to track response to your brand, you should reward your people on the basis of long-term customer satisfaction.

Remember, too, that you have many ways to increase short-term sales, but don’t do any of them at the expense of long-term consistency. Don’t jump on any bandwagon you haven’t created yourself. The world of fast-moving consumer goods is strewn with the bones of line extensions that bucked the brand premise.

Finally, to ensure consistency, someone inside your company should be appointed a “brand guardian,” with responsibility for keeping the brand true. Ideally, this would be the CEO or other senior-level exec.  Only by living the brand from the top down can consistency be achieved.

A version of this post appeared in the Cincinnati Business Courier on July 27, 2007, in the column “That Branding Thing.” Originally co-written with David Wecker.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2007 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.