At first glance, the challenge facing brands today appears to be one of amplification – in a crowded marketplace, whoever shouts loudest gets the attention. Yet a simple analysis will reveal that the correlation between volume and outcome seems tenuous at best.
Rather than turning up the volume to 11 and acting as the gatekeeper for all brand communication, the focus should be on creating a high level of consistency of perception around the brand identity. In other words, developing a brand with a clear, identifiable personality.
Yet achieving this in a world of ever-expanding communication channels is a considerable challenge. With the boundaries between marketing tools becoming increasingly blurred, any increase in the scope and complexity of communication – combined with the inevitable increase in the number of parties involved – runs the risk of delivering content that fails to align fully with the brand identity. No doubt social media and other channels enable brands to connect with customers in new ways, however these methods can also dilute brand identity very easily.
In this new reality, it’s all but impossible to oversee all aspects of a brand’s communication.
Even those most closely involved with a brand can have varying perceptions of the brand’s identity and trajectory. Subtle differences can lead to a lack of consistent brand messaging. When you’re dealing with multiple groups and communication channels, any variation becomes magnified.
Rather than persevering with the campaign and content mindset of the past, the job of brand owners in this new reality – where it’s all but impossible to oversee all aspects of a brand’s communication – should be to articulate and communicate a brand identity that enables the organisation, agencies and other third parties to convey brand identity systematically in a more implicit manner. Much like the best CEOs make understanding and communicating organisational culture a priority, brand managers need to do the same with brand personality. Brand managers also need to ensure that brand personality is understood not only by customers and external partners, but also within the organisation.
The need for rigorous measurement
Being able to articulate and communicate a clear brand identity is one thing; the bigger challenge is to measure and track the consistency of understanding or awareness of this persona accurately. However, we are now beginning to see analytical tools that enable this.
Measuring the variations of brand perceptions is crucial, because without it we end up relying on gut feel when it comes to assessing how well a brief has been understood and implemented by an agency or other marketing partner.
The idea of using human characteristics to describe a brand is not new. There have been many studies into how we form opinions and sentiment towards brands, and the evidence is clear that this process takes place in much the same way as we form perceptions about other people. In other words, from a psychological perspective, we view brands and organisations the same way as we do other people.
It therefore makes sense to use brand personality as a means for understanding brand perception. The trouble with this approach in the past is that it has been very difficult to measure and quantify subtle differences in perception. We know that brands are seen as people, but we haven’t had a sufficient methodology to enable accurate ongoing comparisons.
Tools that can quantify the variability of brand perception would provide a couple of key benefits to brand managers: firstly, ensuring internal behaviours are understood and consistent; secondly, acting as a framework or guide for communicating to the target audience. Focusing on defining the brand personality, aligning all parties and measuring the consistency of perception needs to be the priority.
However, potentially the greatest benefit from brand personification is that it enables us to show more nuanced sides of a brand – the brand becomes more real, comprising both positives and negatives. Communication around brand personality is more tacit. It allows people to make up their own mind about a brand.
The quest for authenticity
Authenticity has become a touchstone for marketers searching to reinforce customer loyalty and brand identity. Yet, when we stop to think a bit more about authenticity, it becomes clear that it’s just another way to describe a relatively simple set of human behaviours, focusing around characteristics such as believability, consistency and sincerity.
Interestingly, authenticity is something that leaders are often keen to project. For example, politicians are led to believe that it’s better to be wrong than to do a U-turn and change your mind or go against formerly stated beliefs. Authenticity, as well as being a desirable trait, is seemingly a prerequisite for setting the agenda and framing future behaviour.
For a brand to be believable, its characteristics have to be recognisably human.
To be authentic, one needs to be consistent. From a psychological perspective, consistency is important because it helps us form future expectations. Based on our understanding of previous behaviour and experience, we’re able to construct a picture of the future. However, authenticity is a lot harder to achieve if you’re trying to be something you’re not, and this is where the long-term risk lies in trying to project authenticity. As soon as you do something inconsistent, people will begin to doubt the validity of their relationship with the brand. They’ll forgive you when something goes wrong that’s out of your control or unforeseen, however doing something that runs counter to your carefully crafted brand identity is far harder to reconcile.
Authenticity also requires believability. For a brand to be believable, its characteristics have to be recognisably human. Just as nobody’s perfect or good at everything, so brands have to acknowledge the things they’re not so good at. They need to be seen to have weaknesses, foibles and idiosyncrasies, as well as strengths. Brands that try to be all things to all people are particularly at risk in this area.
A lack of believability and consistency signals either an absence of self-awareness or, worse, duplicity – a case of saying one thing and doing the opposite. We don’t value this in either ourselves or other people, and we’re unlikely to want to associate ourselves with brands that exhibit this behaviour.
The best way to ensure authenticity is to make the brand personality an extension of the organisation’s culture.
The importance of alignment
Given that the scope and velocity of communication makes it all but impossible to track the entirety of brand communication, the biggest responsibility facing brand managers should be to ensure that all relevant parties are on the same page when it comes to understanding a brand’s identity.
This alignment drives and ultimately reinforces consistency and a relatable personality. When you have alignment, information is communicated with clarity. Yet getting on the same page is actually quite difficult – it requires more than repeating a set of key values or platitudes.
There are three main areas where brands need to focus on alignment.
Firstly, alignment needs to take place during the internal discussion that seeks to understand and articulate a brand personality. It’s at this stage that differences in brand perception among those closest to the brand are identified and resolved. This process aligns what are often surprisingly varying perspectives so that a singular, consistent message can be communicated to third parties.
In many situations, the brand persona will be shaped by the culture within the organisation. It’s therefore important to remember that a brand personality is not something that’s implemented from the C-Suite or picked off a shelf. If it’s going to have any chance of being perceived as authentic, the brand personality needs to come from within the organisation.
Secondly, once a brand personality has been developed and described internally, brand managers need to ensure that any third parties have the same clear and unambiguous understanding of the brand’s identity. Measuring or quantifying this is key to the success of any relationship between agency and client.
Without ensuring alignment at this stage, it’s impossible to know for sure whether the client and agency have a sufficient level of mutual understanding of the brand’s personality to facilitate an effective marketing campaign. It’s very easy to sit in a meeting discussing a campaign and assuming that everybody is on the same page, yet this is a dangerous assumption to make as even small differences in perception can have a large impact on the underlying messages conveyed.
In addition, gaining alignment between client and agency is an especially important consideration, because it can help avoid a situation in which a particular campaign may tick all the boxes from a creative perspective but fails to align with the key characteristics of the brand.
The third and final area where brands need to focus on alignment is in measuring the perception of the brand among customers. This is something that should be done on an ongoing basis. The feedback and data gathered will enable communication to be fine-tuned. In many ways this is the least important part of the alignment process. Customer perception becomes aligned as a by-product of ensuring that the brand identity has been effectively understood.
If [alignment] can be achieved, the actual content of communications becomes a self-managing process.
The goal of alignment should ultimately be to reduce management and overt control of the brand. If everyone has a clear understanding of brand behaviours and values, there is less need to micro-manage or monitor every type of communication or interaction.
Alignment does not come overnight; it requires vigilance and constant feedback. Yet if this can be achieved, the actual content of communications becomes a self-managing process. At the same time, the speed and responsiveness of brand communication is increased.
Storytelling: the best way to communicate brand personality
If brand managers are to use brand personality to develop and underpin brand messages and create alignment, storytelling is perhaps the most effective method to achieve this. From anthropological studies of the evolution of storytelling, some of the obvious benefits for using storytelling include:
Stories provide a direct link to the past, present and future of a product/organisation, enabling them to coalesce into a consistent whole
Stories create empathy and recognition of shared values
Stories can help shape behaviour, both internally and among customers
Storytelling, as opposed to a more explicit communication, provides a way for people to comprehend complex behaviours and values
In a branding context, stories enable us to make our own connections and feel in control when learning about a brand. Importantly, in contrast to more direct or explicit messaging, the very nature of stories is that they allow the listener or reader to draw their own conclusions.
Anouk Pappers of CoolBrands – specialists in helping brands and individuals develop their storytelling – believes that stories are key when it comes to reinforcing brand identity: “To begin with, stories are much easier to digest than other information. So if you integrate your key messages in stories, you do a better job at transmitting but also reinforcing the messages. Besides, we don’t tend to remember more explicit information, but with stories we do.”
Above all, according to Pappers, the tacit nature of storytelling should not be underestimated: “Stories relate to our emotional side of the brain. Stories help us make sense of a complex world. Brands are part of this complex world. So therefore stories can help us make sense of brands. From a psychological perspective we use stories to help us understand brands.”
Storytelling is one of the main ways of humanising a brand. The use of stories also encourages people to think about brands in terms of values that are not purely short-term and financial.
The use of stories encourages people to think about brands in terms of values that are not purely short-term and financial.
Pappers believes that authenticity is at the heart of storytelling, whether for brands or for people: “Stories showing the real people behind the brand are very strong. For example, we work with the CMO of Pepsi China. For us, this brand is very authentic. Why? Because we work with a person, whom we trust, who shares great stories and who cares about more than just profit.”
Furthermore, humour and other elements of personality that enable a brand to appear human and – crucially for authenticity – fallible can be introduced via storytelling. This helps develop a more rounded and believable identity or brand personality.
The use of stories can also help brands move away from trying to please all of the people all of the time. Too many organisations try to cover all bases, concerned about alienating particular groups. Yet it’s the brands that are willing to present clear and consistent personalities that are likely to engender the most loyalty.
Storytelling should not be limited to external communications; it can also be used to great effect within organisations. There’s no point in developing a clear external brand personality if that’s not reflected by the actions of the organisation internally. Using stories and a clear narrative can help influence behaviours, creating alignment within the organisation and enabling all those concerned to act as informal brand messengers. Storytelling can also play a very important role in helping define and understand organisational culture, and in ensuring that this is aligned with the brand’s personality.
Pappers concurs: “Brands can tell different stories, for different audiences, from different angles, all supporting the same key messages.”
Better brand management personified
The combination of a clear, authentic brand personality, storytelling and continuous measurement provides the framework for better brand management.
Instead of being the gatekeeper of all brand communication, the brand manager becomes responsible for developing a believable and consistent set of characteristics for their brand, articulating the brand personality internally and externally through storytelling, and monitoring brand perceptions on an ongoing basis.