One of the hardest judgment calls for brand managers is relevance. Brands must change to stay consistent yet they must also remain recognisable in order to preserve brand equity. So what should you change, and when?
For the purposes of this discussion, let’s put to one side the massive rebrands that take place when a brand decides to shift ground significantly, and confine ourselves to the tweaks and improvements that brands need to regularly undertake to stay current in the iterative economy.
The three speeds of change
I think there are three critical pace-setters: the speed of change that consumers expect; the speed of change within the sector itself; and of course, the speed of change of your competitors. At the very least, brands need to keep up with those around them. Leaders though will be wanting to set a pace – faster or slower – that works to their advantage, knowing that every decision they make is a negotiation between what has worked up until now and what they need to do for ongoing success.
In fast-moving sectors like technology, where consumers are always looking for something new, those changes are likely to be small and regular. In sectors that are forward-looking, brands need to be newsmakers and conversation starters not just to retain top-of-mind but to increase their authority as a brand to watch. In sectors where the pace of change is more measured and risk-conscious, particularly in B2B environments, it’s important to show why changes are being made, what they signal and how the shift will affect buyers.
Whereas fast-moving brands focus on what is to be gained, those in more conservative sectors often need to frame their messages about what will be retained.
Every brand should be checking its toolbox as the business plan is updated to ensure that the brand matches shifts of emphasis in the business. This can be particularly important if the business makes diversification or expansion decisions that require the brand to alter what it signals to the market in terms of things like personality or price. Never underestimate the power, for example, of visual telegraphs.
What changes, when, how often, where, and to achieve what?
And of course every brand competes within a context, so it’s critical that brand managers consistently evaluate their brand against the campaign and branding signals of their rivals. They must then decide whether to match, beat or ignore any important shifts in style, emphasis or message. Creating customer value may just be the easy bit. The real challenge is to maintain that perception of value.
How to check if you’re keeping pace
On this basis, here are five simple ways for brand managers to regularly check that their brands are keeping pace:
- Offer – do consumers want what your brand means to them? That’s about more than just the products themselves. It’s about the associations that consumers pin on the brand beyond what it is/does. The success of MacDonald’s all-day breakfast offer plays on the fact that breakfast at McDonald’s for fans is something they’d look at across the day. It’s a change – but it’s one that sits well with consumer associations. On the other hand, if you’re Coke for example, what do you need to be thinking about in terms of how you brand your products given that consumers are increasingly health-conscious? Do you emphasise smaller portions, do you tweak the ingredients to make them more natural or do you use advertising to focus on the me-only moment of drinking a bottle of Coke? The counter-argument to a consumer concern is not always direct. Sometimes it’s about redirecting buyer attention, either to shift the emphasis away from your own point of weakness as a brand or to detract from a key strength of one of your competitors.
- Aesthetics – updating colours, fonts and imagery is a simple way to sharpen your brand image without compromising its inherent recognition. Many of these changes can be so subtle that they go unnoticed by buyers. Unconsciously though they enable a brand to keep pace with consumers’ shifting ‘brand eye’ so that the brand always looks sharp and contemporary. But as Uber and many others have discovered, take these changes to the point where people find it hard to ‘find’ the brand they think they know and the backlash will be significant.
- Personality – if the business plan calls for the brand to make changes in who it appeals to or how, changing the personality of the brand is a simple way to alter the brand character without changing what people look for. My own view is that brands should keep the core elements that consumers look for as stable as possible (unless they want to signal radical change) and use to changes in campaign aesthetic and personality to give the brand an ongoing sense of progression, intrigue and excitement. The key discipline here is to make these changes within the current DNA of the brand. Too often, brand managers look to shift the personality in response to a competitor or a personal preference and the shift jars with what consumers feel they know. I always like to think of personality development as a gradual revelation – as the things consumers come to see in a brand (alongside changes in product offer) as they get to know it better. Too many brands change personality with every campaign because managers have allowed the brand to be defined by the campaign, and not the other round.
- Language – this point relates to both offer and personality. What you talk about as a brand and the manner in which you do so is increasingly important. It enables you to signal clear points of view to consumers that stand you apart and that consumers find intriguing. Think Diesel’s “Be Stupid” campaign: a glorious example of using a manifesto approach to redefine what a clothing brand can mean for buyers. Language is a particularly powerful mechanism for challenger brands – it enables them to change target quickly and crisply and to enhance their brand presence in the process. Likewise, in B2B, language enables thought leaders to position themselves as manufacturers of ideas that will add value and change performance. Again, the contrast between the dependable brand and a stream of new approaches must be well thought through if the brand is to avoid trying to look like it is trying to talk about everything to everyone.
- Interaction – in this increasingly-on world, broadening where and how consumers can interact with their favourite brands is an opportunity more brand managers need to keep an eye on. It’s not just about adding channels. It’s about making those new channels as fit for purpose as possible and then streaming them to consumers in ways that align with who the brand is and what it stands for. Burberry, for example, have looked to shorten the distance between catwalk and purchase by making it far easier and faster for fans to see and buy. Equally, we’re now seeing traditionally online brands establishing bricks and mortar to diversify customer interactions with their favourite digital brands. By adding a physical presence, these brands are literally looking to change how they make their presence felt.
There is nothing to signal that consumer attention spans will lengthen any time soon. In fact, probably the opposite. We talk a lot about change is a given today, but that doesn’t mean that everything must change because, when it does, consumers lose the reference points they depend on to make fast decisions. My rule is simple: change what you should; keep what you must.