Why are some brands so clear, so loved in consumers’ minds? Why do consumers have a distinct understanding of (some of) their favourite brands and why is their loyalty often not swayed by competitive discounts and promotions?

Pondering these questions often takes me back to a time early in my career when a large and much-loved consumer brand was facing a very difficult situation. The year was 2006 and the media had broken the news of pesticides detection in popular soft-drinks. All soft drink and juice brands were impacted, and the negative press was overwhelming. Sales tanked, inventories piled up and consumer sentiment continued to sink.

Leaving aside the technicalities of the episode, we will focus here only on the brand and consumer story.

Read: Why do some companies succeed consistently while others fail?

Post a few months of the situation settling in (and after the immediate responses were closed), a need was felt to support brand equity while also continuing to reassure consumers that their brand was of high quality and that every care had been taken to make it safe.

Before this situation had broken out, most soft drink brands had used confident and bold tonalities in communication for several years. There was genuine concern that, while reassuring consumers, a softer approach and a gentle tonality would yield better results – even if it went against the overall tonality of the brand.

After multiple scripts, researches, commercial copies, and agonizing, it was realized that for many of these brands, consumers completely missed out on the communication delivery!

It was not that they didn’t believe the message (Credibility was not an issue) or like the ad (Enjoyment was strong), they just didn’t realize that this message was being given by this brand in this voice. This was despite many copies calling out the brand name over 10 times in TV commercials.

In general, consumers completely missed which brand it was!

Why did the consumers not recognize these brands in the new commercials? Should the brand visual have been shown for longer in the film? Was the voice over not clear enough? After much soul searching, the answer came in the form of – lack of consistency in brand identity leading to consumer confusion.

What is a brand identity?

Simply described, a brand stands for a promise made to the consumer. A company promises its consumers a specific kind of experience and this, when demonstrated enough number of times across multiple consumer touch points, ends up becoming its brand identity.

Taj hotels will always stand for hospitality beyond the call of duty. Snickers is inseparable from hunger, Disney has been associated with magical experiences for decades. Donald Trump is a brand, as is Jane Fonda.  

Consumers eventually stop evaluating each aspect of the brand separately and look at it as a sum of their experiences across product, proposition, packaging, pricing, and time. This enables them to take a shortcut in decision making without the need to assess each feature of their experience in isolation. 

Why does a brand identity need to maintain consistency?

Once a brand assumes an identity, it enables consumers to make up their minds about what it stands for in a simple and effortless manner.

As everyone knows, getting people to change their beliefs about anything is a difficult and often unfruitful task. It involves not only first – convincing consumers that their original belief does not hold true, but also, that they must now replace it with an entirely new one. Human beings have an inherent tendency to stick to their beliefs. This is why, it is unlikely that any brand will create footwear to wear in temples and also why people can vote republican/ democrat all their lives.

Inconsistency in brand identity and messaging works to diffuse the brands’ original positioning with consumers. They get mixed messages and decide that they would rather save the time and effort involved in evaluating a brand and often distance themselves from it. This explains why in consumer minds, Dominoes sharply stands for Pizza Delivery in 30 minutes while Pizza Hut stands for – what?

Further, not only must a brand identity remain constant over time, it works best if a common thread runs through each consumer touchpoint (Product, Proposition, Pricing, Packaging, and all other Ps).

Read: How to Create a Self Sustaining Customer Experience

A common thread yields a promise that can often be greater than the sum of parts. For instance, would it be as simple to associate Snickers (proposition) with hunger without the (product) gut fill offered by the peanuts? Would Paperboat Aamras seem as premium without its signature packaging and thick viscous juice? Would a Tata Nano be able to successfully launch a luxury sedan?

Threads of consistency can knit different elements into a unique whole ‘brand signature’ and deviations in any one element can impact the entire identity.

A famous example of Tropicana juice packaging change in 2009 explains this well. While creating a brief to make the brand possibly look more ‘contemporary’ and ‘natural’, the brand identity coded into the packaging was compromised. Consumers did not recognise the brand on the shelves. Core consumers started voicing their discontent on social media. Eventually, Tropicana had to roll back this change.  

Why do marketers often deviate from consistency in their brand work?

The Tropicana example is one that many of us have lived through and carries an important lesson.

How many of us have launched a brand renovation to ‘modernize’ our brands? With new communication, shiny new packaging, and a changed core product? How many of these changes are checked for consistency with the core brand identity? Why do we miss weeding out ideas that don’t talk about the brand language? 

The answer lies somewhere in between the desire to create something truly unique, pressures to deliver the next big thing, low understanding of what the brand truly stands for, and a possible unappreciation of the consumer psyche.

Legacy can sometimes come in the way of ‘the new campaign’ that will change everything. Shopper response in controlled environments can overshadow what consumers will do in a real store setting.

There is no denying that change is a much-needed part of growth. Brands do need refreshing and renovation. Consumers do grow and they expect their brands to keep pace. But this growth needs to hold hands with the desired changes while staying true to the brand core identity. Playing with the core will change the brand’s promise and eventually create more challenges than solutions. 

I have personally been part of pack changes that were inconsistent with the core brand identity and had to be rolled back. These experiences have taught me lessons that I will never forget.  

For in the end, a brand is a promise. And promises work only when they are kept.

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Consumer behavior and brands professional by day and a closet data cruncher by night - Suparna has had the privilege of working in multiple functions at the loftiest of FMCG companies in multiple countries. She is currently working in an MNC in a global role.

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