I am often asked to identify the most essential fail-safe elements of brand building. My advice is always the same: If you do nothing else but communicate a concise message about your brand, clearly and consistently over time, then you will have done more to build your brand than the vast majority of companies in existence. We call that message the “brand directive,” and it should show up in everything you say and do.
The four C's
So, what do clear, concise and consistent communications actually mean?
Clear - This means that the brand strategy follows the business strategy and should be communicated so there is no ambiguity about the strategic intent and direction of management. Remember that the brand strategy is the business strategy communicated.
Concise - If you can boil down the brand directive into a sentence or two, that is ideal. It should not be more than a few sentences in any event, and it does not have to be as pithy as a slogan to be effective. It is usually a better use of your time to communicate the concept and let your branding firm or advertising agency fine tune it into a slogan or tag line.
Consistent - Is precisely that — stick to the message consistently over time so it has an impact. Consistency is not just about communications; your message should be reflected in everything you say and do as a leader and as a company.
Communications - Communication is more than the verbal and printed word. It also includes intended communication, such as advertising and public relations, and unintended communications, such as an open microphone capturing a conversation that is not for public consumption. It is literally everything you say and do; therefore, managing communications is a very important job and it applies to every person in the company.
Even while following the rules above for communicating, one of the most common failures in marketing communications is when management gets bored with its own message and changes things up at the very point when the message is starting to become effective. We call this “message fatigue,” and it is one of the most wasteful aspects of branding.
While we recommend sticking to a message for the long term, it is reality to recognize that everything will eventually get old, stale or need refreshing periodically. Rather than relying on gut instinct to determine the best time to refresh your brand, we believe it is wise to do periodic third-party benchmark tracking research with your key stakeholders to evaluate how your brand is holding up with those who are most important to it. Some of those key stakeholders are: investors, employees, customers, media, community, social networks, etc. While this research can be done internally, we have found that using a third party is more likely to yield the most forthright answers regarding decisions around your brand.
In the following three examples, companies have stuck with branding that clearly communicated their story and became the foundation for their marketing efforts over a long period of time. You may recognize them as dominant organizations in their industries, in part because of the strong brands they have built.
One good example of a clear brand directive in three simple words is “Truth Well Told” — the credo for the global advertising agency, McCann Erickson, which is a division of Interpublic Group of Companies. These three words say so much about the clarion call for the classic advertising agency, and it has stood the test of time — having been created at the agency's founding in 1912.
Likewise, Johnson & Johnson's credo challenges the company to put the needs and well being of the people it serves first. When J&J's credo was tested in early 2011 by a few misguided management decisions resulting in a number of product recalls, the resulting misalignment of the brand was so clear and jarring that the company quickly identified and corrected the path and the declining trajectory of this otherwise stalwart brand. You would know by gut instinct that something was wrong, but quantitative research confirmed it and took the emotion out of the discussion. This is a good example of how research can aid the decision-making process when it comes to guiding your brand.
Lastly, in 1956, Allstate Insurance introduced a promise for its brand with the tagline: “You're in good hands with Allstate.” It says all you need to know about this insurance company and does it in a timeless manner. It says that you are smart to do business with Allstate, and it will take care of your needs. Although how that message has been communicated has changed over time, what's being said hasn't changed; this helps message that the company's values haven't changed, either.
All three examples above have withstood the test of time and are as relevant today as when they were created.
“Clear, concise, consistent communications” is a touchstone for all your branding efforts. Always make sure your investments in brand building meet these criteria, and when you have formed something that rings true to your organization, stick to it. It can help build a lasting brand message that separates you from your competitors for years to come.
James R. Gregory is founder and CEO of CoreBrand, a global brand strategy, communications and design firm headquartered in New York, with offices in Los Angeles and Tampa. He helps clients develop strategies to improve their corporate brands and profitability. Gregory has written four books on creating value with brands: “Marketing Corporate Image,” “Leveraging the Corporate Brand,” “Branding Across Borders” and “The Best of Branding.” Contact him at [email protected].