Three Kinds of Brand Consistency

Meet Stan. Stan works over in accounting. He is, you might say, a little buttoned-up. His shirts are so well-starched that they deflect bullets. On Casual Friday, he lets loose by wearing jeans – with crisply ironed pleats. He has a picture of Rush Limbaugh in his office, which is so immaculate it makes his co-workers anxious. And a hair out of place? Not on Stan’s head.

But one Monday morning, Stan arrives looking like he missed the bus to Bonnaroo. He’s wearing baggy hemp clothing, his hair resembles a bird’s nest, and he hasn’t seen the working end of his razor in days. Barack has replaced Rush in the frame on his desk.

You are understandably taken aback when confronted with the new Stan. “Uh… Stan? You don’t seem like yourself,” you say. “No, no,” he replies. “This is who I’ve been all along.” Then he shuffles down the hall, humming a tune that sounds quite a bit like “Sugar Magnolia.”

Brands and Bandwagons

Stan has changed his stripes. Brands do this all the time, and it’s often just as unconvincing. For example, it’s getting awfully crowded on the “green” bandwagon lately. This wouldn’t be a bad thing, if it didn’t smack of such cynicism. I’d guess a fair percentage of marketers will hop right off that bandwagon as soon as their research tells them it’s safe to do so.

Near the end of its life, Oldsmobile pulled a Stan. Desperate brands resort to desperate measures; Olds launched a promotional campaign in which its cars were sliced in half and suspended from office buildings in major metros. This is Oldsmobile we’re talking about. If ever there was a brand for which pseudo-hip posturing simply wouldn’t work, Oldsmobile was it.

The issue here is brand consistency. Consider the plight of Miller Genuine Draft. Ad Age reports that MGD is about to launch its eighth campaign and tagline since 2001. That’s right – eight ad campaigns in as many years. Is it any surprise that, in those eight years, shipments have declined by 41%?

Great brands are built through consistency, and in no other way. Ensuring consistency is simple. First, define your brand’s core: Its vision, positioning and values. Second, stick to it.

Brand Consistency in Three Forms

That’s easy to say but far more difficult to do. To check your progress, evaluate your brand’s performance in each of three kinds of consistency. To elevate your brand to the level of greatness, you need consistency between:

What you say and what you do. That means making a promise – and keeping it. Of course, many brands haven’t established a clear, differentiated promise, so consistency is a secondary question. But once that promise is defined, keeping it is your top priority. If you’re going to hang your hat on a particular claim, you had better be prepared to deliver.

What you don’t say and what you do. This one is about implied promises. Most brands don’t advertise courtesy, respect and honesty. But customers have a reason to expect them. These are matters of integrity, of ethics, of character. It is here where hiring, training and culture play a huge role in the perception of your brand.

What you do and what you do. Here, the focus is on the experience – your brand’s behavior and character. This is why McDonald’s has firm operational standards for its french fries – how much salt, how long in the fryer – because a McDonald’s fry should be the same in Boston as it is in Boise. If you want to stand for something, you have to exemplify it time and again. Your customers may not get what you’re about the first time. But by the fifth impression (or the seventh, or the tenth), it will start to sink in.

Master all three kinds of consistency, and you’ll firmly etch your brand in the minds of your customers. And a firmly-etched brand is difficult to uproot.

A version of this post appeared in the Cincinnati Business Courier on May 2, 2008, in the column “That Branding Thing.”

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 2008 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.