Brands should have a certain integrity – every expression of them has to be consistent with what the brand is all about, at its heart. Follow this rule and the brand will grow from strength to strength. Neglect it, and the mixed messages you send out will undermine the brand.
Let’s face it, building a great brand is very hard to do, and it usually takes a very long time. On the other hand, it’s very easy to damage or destroy a brand, and this can happen overnight – as VW have discovered in the fallout from their disastrous car recalls, or as BP learned from its Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The hard truth is that a brand is only as strong as its weakest link – in the case of VW, it was the decision to rig emissions tests for its diesels. In the case of BP it was the poor safety management of its third party platform operator in the Gulf of Mexico.
What these companies overlooked was the need to be totally consistent with the core values at the heart of their brand, and manage the experience of their brand wherever people came into contact with it to achieve that consistency, be they their target customers, associates, or the public at large. Every experience of a brand needs to express the same brand promise. As the late Wally Olins put it, “because branding is about creating and sustaining trust it means delivering on promises. The best and most successful brands are completely coherent. Every aspect of what they do and what they are reinforces everything else.”
Michael Wolff, co-founder of Wolff Olins, wrote a little book on this subject called “You are a Towel”, the premise of which is that a company’s brand image can be reduced to the single worst experience a customer has of it, no matter how insignificant that experience is, or how good the brand might
be in other respects.
The very first paragraph of his book gives the idea: “If you find a dirty towel in your bathroom in an unfamiliar hotel you don’t blame the laundry. You blame the hotel. You’ll probably make a judgement about the chain the hotel belongs to, and if you’re abroad, you might judge the nation where the hotel is as well. After noticing the dirty towel you’ll then start to see other things which confirm your view: chips in the paint, curled-up carpet, incompetent service in the restaurant and rather grubby, old-looking menus. You’ll see everything not working as well as it should….”
What he explains is the psychology behind this process, that when it comes to a brand (even a new one), we are rarely neutral. We come to a brand with unconscious preconceptions, and edit our experience of it to fit those preconceptions. So although the brand may have good qualities and offer both good and bad experiences, we choose to notice only those details which confirm our expectations, whether they are positive or negative.
Some companies are aware of this, and manage the experience of their brand “to provide consistent patterns of details which lead us to make favourable judgements about them”, as Wolff put it. Others fail to do this, and their brand image is hostage to the next bad experience a customer has.
The point to note here is that product brands which are consistent have integrity, and consequently people trust them. And here’s a further benefit about trusted brands – even if they screw up, they are forgiven. Moreover if they rectify the error immediately, they might be trusted even more than before. Think of Virgin Group and the number of failures they have experienced in their history, yet the Virgin brand goes from strength to strength.
So if this message is getting through and you are concerned about how to manage the consistency of your brand experience across all brand touch points, what can you do?
Well the first step is to see how well your brand is being managed at the moment. As Michael Wolff suggests, an effective way to do that is to put yourself in the shoes of your customer and walk through all the experiences of your brand that form a journey through your organisation.
That ‘customer journey’ typically ranges from:
The key point is to design every experience so that it supports the brand. Everything a company does, front office, back office and out-of-the-office, has to deliver the same brand promise.