Brand Consistency Is Killing Your Digital Advertising
Seven principles for creating an inconsistent brand.
Seven principles for creating an inconsistent brand.
Over the course of your career, you’ve probably heard the following statement repeated more than a few times, “We are looking for a fully integrated campaign that drives consistency across all media channels.” It sounds smart enough, and that line, or some version of it, has been the cornerstone of marketing courses and boardroom presentations for the better part of two decades.
In the advertising world, “integration” is a safe word. It’s easy, helps sell work, and makes everyone in the room feel comfortable. I would argue, however, this drive for consistency is actually killing digital advertising. Not in the sense that digital advertising will cease to exist, but that it will become so generic that it will cease to be relevant to consumers. In theory, integrated campaigns are both efficient and effective. They can lead to good work, but often lead to advertising that is consistent for the sake of being consistent. If we take a step back and objectively evaluate the concept of an integrated campaign, we will see a dying model that doesn’t always equal success and is sorely out of touch with today’s consumers.
The true opportunity lies in brand inconsistency. It’s the notion that a brand doesn’t have to look the same; it just has to feel the same. As an industry, we have collectively convinced ourselves that people could not possibly understand what a brand is about unless all its communications match. If we believe we are not one-dimensional people in our online or offline lives, then an element of newness and surprise is imperative for brands in today’s culture. It is possible for a brand to be unwavering in what it stands for while also being flexible, schizophrenic even, in the way it expresses itself. It is possible to develop a campaign in which no two ads, traditional or digital, are alike. There is no official guide to this approach, but what follows are seven principles for creating an inconsistent brand.
1. Redefine integration. Integration is traditionally defined by taking separate components, ads in this case, and fusing them together to give the appearance that everything is born from the same place. The danger in this approach is when integration forces uniformity upon an execution to the point where it erodes the original beauty of the idea. There is opportunity to redefine integration as separate and unique pieces that don’t necessarily interlock, but are born from the same vision, promise, or objective. Virgin has built an empire on entering vastly different categories – wine, healthcare, airlines, music, satellite TV – which are solely connected by the brand’s vision to deliver an exceptional customer experience. In the finance sector, mutual funds are collections of companies with different customers and different corporate missions. Nike has little to do with General Electric or Exxon Mobil, yet mutual funds integrate scores of companies around one central goal.
From an advertising perspective, filtering ideas through the new definition of integration highlights the insight that a TV ad, mobile app, and content partnership all have completely different modes of consumption and interaction. In reality, consumers don’t need concepts to depend on one another in order to form opinions or make decisions. As long as all the ideas are born from something the brand can own and deliver value in some form, they can be individually unique and independent while simultaneously working together to accomplish a common objective.
2. Know what to expect from your product, but not your brand. Fashion designer Andy Spade championed a vision that his products should be so exceptional, so consistent, and so undeniably indicative of his brand, that anyone could pick up an Andy Spade item anywhere in the world and instantly recognize the Any Spade brand. Applying this philosophy to advertising, companies are able to utilize their products to consistently meet consumer expectations, while allowing the brand to continually evolve, experiment, and surprise its consumers.
3. Product filter vs. brand filter. There are times when marketers and agencies become so fixated on “the big idea” that they lose sight of how interesting the product can be. Often, the big idea is simply a rearticulation of what everyone already knows and expects of the brand. Instead, we need to shift the focus to the products and use them as filters for advertising.
Altoids is an excellent example. For years, its advertising centered around a single brand idea, “Curiously Strong.” After a period of success and producing some of the most iconic advertising in the industry, Altoids’ business began to falter and remained stagnant for several years. As compelling as the brand idea and advertising were, consumers eventually grew complacent.
Of course, the advertising was not solely responsible for the brand’s troubles. When my agency at the time began working on the brand, we decided to step away from “curiously strong” as the central idea and embrace the product. Our strategy was to stay true to the brand’s values while celebrating all the little things that make Altoids fascinating. This approach gave us more options while also giving our advertising a stronger reason for being. Each attribute received its own campaign – the chalky nature of mints, the rattling noise they make inside the tin, and the biting flavor, all became inspirations for campaigns. The resulting campaigns were not linked together by a traditional big idea; however, they were all rooted in the product and unified by the brand’s values.
4. Define everything through consumer behavior. This is marketing 101, but it’s quickly forgotten when discussions turn toward objectives, KPIs, or RTBs. On the corporate side, brands constantly struggle to balance what they want to say with what consumers actually want to hear or how they behave. An honest assessment would likely reveal that consumers rarely remember what advertising says, but they do remember how it made them feel and what they did when interacting with the marketing content.
So let’s forgo the old way of doing things, where everything revolves around our message, and embrace human behaviors first and foremost. Every execution has the potential to be an expression of a person’s behavior. When consumer motivations are placed at the center of a brand’s marketing practices, the result is dozens, if not hundreds, of contextual ads and interactions that address different behaviors. The future, for example, is one where brands utilize location data to determine which members of the family are at home and, therefore, which commercials to broadcast to their television. That’s just the start.
5. Embrace technology. Sounds simple, but embracing technology means more than following Mashable on Twitter or recommending an iPhone app to clients. Technology not only brings new perspectives and creativity to the marketing process, it also builds toward the idea of brands embracing inconsistency. Suppose a brand is looking to launch a new campaign. Rather than brainstorming what needs to be said, the company creates individual, self-contained ideas for each relevant technology and media vehicle available. The brand is then showcased creatively and differently through each piece of technology. The end result is a campaign that is true to the brand, even though it doesn’t have a true single-minded message or the traditional consistency of an integrated campaign.
6. Adopt a meme mentality. The digital age, and social media in particular, is reshaping the way people transmit information and communicate with one another. At the consumer level, the best example of new media affecting our culture is the meme.
As sophomoric as memes appear, they are a direct representation of what people find funny, moving, or entertaining. Digging below the surface, adopting a meme mentality is really about being part of the cultural conversation in real time. Being both relevant and immediate. Not every brand should rush to create another version of “LOLcats” or “Epic Fail,” but companies are in danger of becoming mere spectators of meme culture. Strategically, brands should be looking at their core values and attributes and thinking of ways to filter them through existing memes. If done correctly, companies will be able to put their products at the center of a conversation by providing entertainment value to consumers.
7. Take a break from the single-minded message. Regardless of media or creative discipline, agencies are often expected to reconcile marketing challenges with half a dozen business goals, along with expectations of developing advertising that addresses consumer insights with a lengthy list of product attributes. Factor in concerns and opinions of stakeholders on both sides of the campaign, and it is no surprise that creative briefs are rarely brief. The fact is, one pithy sentence isn’t always enough. If it’s just a TV campaign with a few accompanying print ads, then the single-minded message should work every time. However, clients want to find new ways to bring their brands to life and are tasking agencies like mine to go beyond advertising – to explore content, emerging media, and new technologies. Extensions into advertising are inevitable, but starting with a single-minded message is often insufficient. Thus, we should be briefing our teams on the brand, its challenges, and the things we could potentially make interesting, but leave the “creative gates” completely open. We may end up with brilliant ideas that don’t look like campaigns at the outset, but are actually quite integrated and powerful.
Ultimately, our task as marketers is to always push forward and look for new ways to connect with people. This approach won’t work for every brand and there will always be barriers that come with challenging an existing way of thinking. This theory is less about the death of a discipline and more about trying to make sure agencies have a hand in shaping what advertising will look like in the future.