Consistency is the first law of corporate brand building—at least that is what all of the experts say. Branding principles evolved out of post World War II economic prosperity and the emergence of the mid twentieth century consumer. Major companies such as Campbell’s, Proctor & Gamble and General Foods systematized package design to help shoppers recognize their brands on shelves and cultivate loyalty. Think about it—a grocery shelf full of those Campbell’s red and white cans is a powerful visual.
While the American economy was exuberant in the mid-20th century, it was challenged by social upheaval over the next 30 years—the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement and the Women’s Rights movement. Inflation was rampant in the 1970s. The 1980s roared and then crashed. By the 1990’s business was seeking answers. An entire industry of “gurus” consisting of Tom Peters, Seth Godin and others emerged. Process-driven systems such as Six-Sigma created to improve manufacturing, began to be applied to service industries.
Corporations wanted to increase control over variables, eliminate choice and in short, risk. Systems created repeatable tasks and clearly defined choices.
Corporate identity firms, established in the mid-century boom, had been very successful in crafting identity strategy and systems for major corporations. By the 90s these firms began to merge business strategy, and the process driven system principles with consumer strategy and transformed the practice of corporate identity into what we now call branding. These programs were larger and included more of the corporate communication suite. This new approach called “Branding” resonated deeply.
Branding was a compelling tool for decentralized, global organizations. First, it was bold and new(ish). Second, technology, that is “desktop publishing” was literally, on every desktop. Desktop publishing eliminated the need to outsource what had become expensive typesetting and design fees. The emergence of this low cost technology merged with principles of repetition and systemization to facilitate the production of communication deliverables.
By the end of the 1990s, there had been decades of mergers and acquisitions—and staff reductions. Middle managers were expected do more with less, and this new process that facilitated production and promised increased presence on the global stage seemed to be the perfect answer.
As a result, a visual design discipline of lockstep consistency emerged. Giant manuals containing grid systems, typographic systems and photographic systems were produced at great expense. But over time, the outcomes were mixed and success was not a guarantee. Branding systems delivered consistency and ease of production over creativity and inspired breakthrough messaging. Many programs were flawed and didn’t fully anticipate day-to-day needs, so workarounds emerged. And in many organizations, the brand guidelines were so repetitive that people tired of them, wanted variety and subverted the systems—resulting in a new round of brand exploration and the commission of yet another new system.
Remember when network television executives only had to worry about cable? Boy, has the world changed. Television is no longer television but streaming content accessible on a computer, tablet or phone. We get our entertainment through websites, social media, podcasts, e-books, book books, and e pubs—media is fragmented, audiences are fragmented and messaging is fragmented.
This fragmentation has resulted in communication that is often ignored. The concept that branding success is dependent upon overarching consistency is outmoded. Repetition more often results in mediocrity. We have entered an era where a more proactive, dynamic approach to brand management is called for.
I’ve named it Responsive Branding and I am not alone in challenging the wisdom of repetition in brand management. There are rumblings and reports all over the internet. For example, Lee Clow, the award winning creative mind behind the Apple 1984 ad has been quoted as saying, “Our job as marketers is to harness the power and tell the stories of brands…Too often, marketers allow systems to dominate and these systems bury the message. If you are an effective marketer, you think outward…Yet there is a danger that when a company gets ‘branded” that the company will think inward—they worry about consistency and repetition more than the customer.”
A recent NPR story about the advertising in the lead up to Super Bowl 50 spoke about how advertisers want an “Oreo moment.” In case you are unaware, in 2013, there was a power outage at the football stadium and Oreo’s agency sent out a tweet of an image of the cookie enveloped in darkness with the caption: “You Can Still Dunk in the Dark.” It was re-tweeted thousands of times.
Behind the scenes, this type of responsiveness and sheer imagination requires agency teams at work all through the broadcast, ready to comment on live, unpredictable events. This is not a kid on an iPhone, but a group of highly engaged professionals working with a strategy and enormous amounts of creativity. There is no instruction manual for this type of response.
Some of the world’s largest brands are embracing agility. With over 700 million iPhones sold to date, most of us are probably familiar with Apple. Most people I asked assume Apple’s brand program is highly inflexible. Go, for example, to Apple’s consumer website. It’s consistent from page to page with a white, clean look and its product as hero. Then, click on Apple for Business—the tone changes. The pages show photos of teams working with products. Implicit in the images and language is the message that Apple facilitates collaboration. Now, go to Apple Music—it’s like walking into a smoke-filled cabaret—edgier, moodier—it’s the experience of being inside your head surrounded by sound.
Everything Apple produces is audience focused and contextual to the delivery channel. The lesson from these examples is that there is a difference in rigidly protecting a brand and rigidly applying a brand across a communication platform. That is the reason Oreo is such a popular cookie and Apple is one of the most powerful corporations in the world.
One might say that Responsive Branding harkens to Mad Men and the era of the creative genius. This might be some validity in this assumption but it is overly simplistic. Responsive Branding requires creativity and ingenuity but it also requires agility, flexibility, collaboration and coordination. Responsive Branding offers an approach that embraces chaos, creativity, media fragmentation, and eschews uniformity. It aims for a coherent framework of targeted, cross platform visual and verbal communication.
That’s more powerful than a shelf of soup.