On consistency in branding

The story of Tim Callan’s first visit to Stockholm:  One time when I was in my mid-twenties I had the good fortune to travel to Sweden and Norway on business.  It was my first time anywhere in the Nordics.  I arrived in Stockholm at night, and by the time I had gotten to the hotel and checked in, it was pushing eleven.  I had not had a chance to eat that evening, and rather than choosing room service I wanted to get out and see something of the city, even if it was simply a matter of walking to dinner and back.

I left the hotel and started down the larger of the streets it was on.  Now apparently they roll up the sidewalks at night in that city, or at least in the area I was in, because I walked past plenty of restaurants that were closed or closing but none with a kitchen open.  I walked into several bars, but none of them had food on the menu.  I walked and walked for blocks and blocks and continued to find nothing.  After twenty minutes I had more or less come to the conclusion that I’d best turn around and head back, right after I look at this last open area ahead.

In case you haven’t been, Stockholm is build along a large river with lots of islands in it and bridges connecting them to each other and the two banks.  The parts of the city that border on the river afford some nice, long views if you happen to be in the right spot.  And in fact, as I emerged from whatever street I was on into the riverfront area, indeed I suddenly could see quite a way to buildings across the water.  I emerged and swept my gaze across the scene, and immediately I saw a shape I recognized.

A yellow curved line, in almost an upside down U shape.  Adjoined by another yellow, curved line, in the same shape, the two lines touching at the very bottom.  Otherwise known as the Golden Arches.

That’s right.  From a quarter mile away I instantlly spotted this tiny neon beacon, and I immediately knew what it stood for.  A place I could get food that was open late.  Bingo.  I hoofed it on over there and had a Dupla Sajtburger, which is what they call a Big Mac in Sweden.  Happy ending to Tim’s first night in Stockholm.

The moral:  What does this story illustrate?  It illustrates the power of consistency in brand building.  The fact is that most of the people out there in the world, tragically, don’t pay nearly as much attention to us and our messages as we ourselves do.  Shocking but true.  Most of those people very selfishly go about their day thinking about themselves and their own petty concerns and dedicate almost no attention to the terribly important things we marketers have to tell them.

After we’re done moaning and wailing about our sad, sad fate, we can take a lesson.  You have to assume that in all but the rarest of circumstances your target audience will be incredibly apathetic, distracted, and forgetful about the marketing messages you put in front of her.  However bad you think they will be at retaining what you have to say, it’s probably considerably worse than that.  It’s not that your customer is stupid or ignorant, it’s just that you most likely fall far lower in her priorities than you figure you do.

So what do we do about that?  There are a number of responses, and I may get into some others later, but for now the answer is we focus on consistency.  Figure out what you want to say, how you want to say it, what words you want to use, what images you’ll use to communicate your ideas, and what your colors and fonts and other stylistic elements will be like, and then use those elements consistently and rigorously over and over and over again.  Don’t get cute.  Don’t mix it up.  Don’t think you’ll give them a chance to try something different for a change.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking your customer has paid even one thousandth of the attention to your marketing that you, yourself have.

I see marketers making this mistake all of the time.  You execute a marketing program until you’re absolutely sick to death of it and if you have to see it one more time you swear to God you’ll take out your own eyes with your letter opener.  The moment you have that reaction, that’s when the prospect is finally saying to himself, “Gee, this looks familiar here, haven’t I see it before somewhere?”  And amazingly that’s exactly when many marketing departments say, “Out with the old and in with the new.  It needs a refresh.  My now, isn’t all this new marketing so much more interesting and fun to produce?”

The folks at McDonald’s understand that.  Those Golden Arches are eternal, ubiquitous, and unchanging.  By rigorously applying that graphic treatment to my every encounter with its marketing, stores or product, the company had made those arches into a part of my visual vocabulary, a graphical word that means the same thing as the chain’s name itself.  And on that occasion it got them a sale.

Now I know we’re not all spending the kind of media dollars that Ronald is.  But even if you don’t have that kind of marketing muscle, you still owe it to yourself to maximize the power of what you do have within your limited scope.  In fact, for those of us with mere-mortal budgets, the need is even greater.

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