• Transform magazine
  • December 11, 2017

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Opinion: "Should brands be led by coherence?" Dan Bobby asks

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Brands strive for consistency, but what's really needed in the digital age is coherence. Dan Bobby argues for a shift in the way brands are built

There exists inevitable debate about what a brand is or does. Despite the debate, there is broad consensus that a brand characterises the primary relationship between a business and its customers. Brands define the nature of this relationship and make it unique.

The thinking that underlies a brand’s identity is typically written down in a definitive brand book, which sets out how the brand elements, usually the visual elements, should be used. Sounds good in theory, but this way of doing things is problematic.

To start with, brand guidelines represent a 'snapshot in time,' showing where the brand is at that particular moment. Rarely is consideration given to how it might evolve and what its changing nature might be. The colour palette may remain consistent over time, but brand values can change or take on new attributes.

Brand documents are limiting by design and don’t allow the flexibility to cope with these changes. They usually emphasise how not to use the brand, rather than how to bring it to life. This creates friction between the brand management team and the wider business, and establishes a relationship that’s built on restrictions rather than on celebrating the brand.

Today, many brands are experienced largely through digital and social channels, yet most brand guidelines contain little if any guidance on the verbal and linguistic components of the brand’s identity, or how to manage real time, conversational interactions with customers. Instead, digital community managers tend to rely on instinct without any formal method, often resulting in a big #brandfail. What is needed is distinctive, flexible language that can be used easily and meaningfully across multiple channels.

Businesses need to find a way to capture and manage all aspects of a brand and take into account its evolution. The assets that make up the brand guidelines might combine written documents with visual references, audio and video files – whatever is necessary to fully define the brand – as long as these assets are continually reviewed and updated.

While consistency has its place, I believe brands today should be led by coherence. If a consumer’s experience of a product or service does not reflect the brand values, they will lose interest and ultimately trust in that brand.

Coherence is about growing and shaping brand values based on a core idea or philosophy. If the brand team solely focuses on visual consistency, it risks undermining the vitality of the brand. The principles behind conventional brand management may be sound but their application, in terms of business impact, is misguided.

The difference between brand consistency and coherence is about brand experience. If a brand goes unchanged for too long and no longer reflects the experiences of those who engage with it, it will feel stale, uninspiring, boring. In turn, it will engender a repetitive experience that could eventually damage the business if not addressed. Conversely, when a brand is experienced intuitively and mirrors brand values, it has coherence. It feels familiar, true, compelling. Coherence is when the brand feels alive and lives up to its promise.

Businesses change and evolve, as does the environment and circumstances in which they operate. If a brand is to shine a light on the business, it follows that it should evolve too. More than that, the brand should embrace new opportunities, foreshadow commercial trends and respond to new ways that customers experience it and what it stands for. This can’t be achieved through a consistency approach. It’s time to start putting coherence before consistency. If thinking around brand management and guidelines doesn't change, then businesses may learn to do without it.

Dan Bobby is CEO at Calling Brands

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