In Search Of Brand Coherence...


Creating a brand that's coherent is first base for a marketer.

It's traditionally been a delicate balancing act. If it's not coherent, then it's unlikely to create a cohesive pattern in the brain. But if it's too uniformly consistent, then it won't feel natural or authentic.

However, today, as channels and touchpoints multiply for every brand, just achieving some degree of coherence is challenge enough.

It's all about body language...

Ironically, growing up in retail marketing, coherence has always been a major challenge.

Retail brands are formed primarily by the customers' experience of their shopping trip, and a shopping trip is a living, breathing, multi-dimensional entity that touches all the senses. You couldn't make it rigidly uniform, even if you tried.

Of course, a huge amount of effort goes in to the fabric of the shopping trip - the physical design, the graphics, the packaging, etc. -, to make it feel coherent. And indeed, discussions about the degree of coherence vs consistency around this have ebbed and flowed for years.

But in reality, a shopping trip communicates much like you and I: it's a bit about what we say, a bit more about how we say it, but largely it's through our body language. And that body language is driven more by the behaviors of the business, than by the fabric.

The impact of behaviors...

This really struck me when I was talking to customers about supermarket price perceptions in the UK, more than a decade ago. Tesco had invested heavily in reducing prices over a number of years, to match Asda (now Walmart), the price leader. Yet the gap between them in how customers perceived their prices hadn't changed at all.

It turned out that customers did indeed recognize that Tesco had reduced prices. However, they felt that Tesco was really interested in persuading them to spend more, rather than in helping them to save money.

What communicated that? The behaviors they observed during the shopping trip.

For example, they pointed to endcaps dominated by multibuy promotions, which required higher levels of spend to access the savings. They pointed to premium products positioned at eye-level on the shelves, while cheaper products were tucked away. And they complained about recurring out of stocks on the cheapest products, as they hadn't been given enough selling space. These examples, and more like them, were communicating that Tesco was more interested in selling, than in helping its customers save money.

In essence, Tesco weren't getting credit for the price cuts, as they didn't feel a genuine, coherent part of the brand. To change this, Tesco had to change those behaviors. But how?

First, Tesco connected pricing directly to "every little helps", its customer first philosophy, by articulating it's pricing objective as "helping you spend less". Next, they set out to explain what this meant to every employee, as well as symbolically changing the manifestations of the previous behavior: e.g., switching the endcaps over to price cuts. Finally, they flowed "helping you spend less" through the fabric of the shopping trip, and through their external media.

The effect was almost immediate. After many years of trying without success, within 6 months the gap in customers price perception almost closed. By bringing together the behaviors and the fabric of the brand around a price philosophy at the core of the business, the body language of the shopping trip had changed.

Getting it together...

Today, in a world of ever greater transparency, of multiplying channels and touchpoints, behaviors form a part of virtually any brand experience. The simple 3-step approach Tesco used helps that experience form a coherent whole:

  1. Be clear what you stand for, a core purpose or philosophy rooted in improving people's lives in some way.
  2. Flow it through the fabric of the brand, through everything that it produces and all its touchpoints.
  3. Embed it in the culture of the business, so that it drives behaviors.

Of course, since it involves behaviors, the brand will never be uniformly consistent - human beings aren't automatons, after all.

But the brand will feel more natural because of it.

And you'll have made first base...