As an experienced marketer I am exposed to the latest branding maxims. If your career is as long as mine, you find a great deal of the dogma repetitive, and the advice, simplistic. It is tiresome.
Yet some brands break through our attention deficit world and create tremendous buzz. I decided to interview a number of leading marketers over the past year to dig deeper and try to visualize the future of branding. My research uncovered some common themes among the most successful.
I conceived the term Responsive Branding (which is also the title of my book) to reflect a new approach—one that is agile and adaptable to a changing marketplace. Responsive Branding is a framework of consistent voice, persona, values, look and feel that allows for a high level of customization. But mind you—it’s a framework not a system.
Great brands break rules (like mindless repetition) that have long been the foundation of traditional brand building. Their strategies consist of conceptual themes that are bigger and broader than those found in a design manual. They touch cultural flash points, finding common ground between the brand and our emotions.
Branding in the 21st-century is loaded with paradoxes. Yes, you need a modicum of consistency, much expertise, laser focus and the courage to take risks. But you must implement these qualities in different ways than you have in the past. First and foremost, leading brands are not static—developing a program is just the opening salvo.
Repetition has been the cornerstone of corporate brand building since the emergence of the mid-20th-century supermarket. Major consumer companies such as Campbell’s, Procter & Gamble and Del Monte systematized package design to help shoppers recognize their brand and to cultivate loyalty. A grocery aisle full of Campbell’s red-and-white cans is a powerful pattern.
Once branding entered the boardrooms of the service industry, however, it applied programmatic consistency to facilitate production over creativity. This practice enabled uniformity of communication with less supervision—something especially useful for large, decentralized organizations.
Yet, more and more companies [that have been “branded”] find they are struggling to break through in a new hyper-rich media environment. The old constructs no longer work. Earlier this year, for example, NPR ran a story about advertising and the lead-up to Super Bowl 50. Everyone wanted an “Oreo moment.” In case you’re unfamiliar with the reference, there was a power outage in 2013 at the Superdome in New Orleans in the Game’s third quarter. During the 30-minute blackout, Oreo’s ad group, the Martin Agency, sent out a tweet of an image of the cookie with the caption, “Power out? No problem. You can still dunk in the dark.” It was re-tweeted more than 15,000 times.
How about Apple? With over 700 million iPhones sold to date, the majority of us are familiar with Apple’s products and communication. Most people assume Apple’s brand program lacks flexibility. I want you to remember there is a big difference in rigidly protecting a brand and rigidly deploying a brand across all communication platforms.
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 is the message that Apple will facilitate collaboration. Now, go to Apple Music—it’s edgier and moodier—reminiscent of a sultry jazz club. Everything Apple communicates is audience focused and contextual to the delivery channel. This strategy is just one of the many reasons Apple is one of the most powerful brands in the market.
One could say that Responsive Branding is a throwback to the era of Mad Men and the dominance of the creative agency. In some ways, the observation is correct—but it’s overly simplistic. Responsive Branding requires Mad Men-era creativity and ingenuity, but it also requires intense attention and coordination. It’s not easy because the brand is never finished and never stops evolving. Responsive Branding embraces creativity. It leverages media fragmentation and eschews uniformity, while aiming for a coherent framework of cross-platform visual and verbal communication.
Look for it—you will see—it’s more powerful than a shelf of red-and-white soup cans.
This article is excerpted from Responsive Branding: Why Agility Beats Structure in a Multi-Channel World by Lynda Decker