My friend’s wife suffers from multiple personality disorder. He says its fine – like sleeping with a different woman every night! It doesn’t work that way with brands though. Deviation from the personality your customers have come to know and trust could mean the end of a beautiful relationship!
You know how it is. There’s a chap at work who you see every day. You know him well enough, he’s the guy in the smart suit with the latest haircut and all his facial hair in the right places! You like him, he’s reliable and you don’t really think twice about trusting him with a project or a task.
Then, one Saturday, you are pushing your shopping trolley around the local supermarket and you come across a couple of loud kids with some bloke in jeans an a baggy sweater, hair all over the place and stubble on his chin, who looks like their Dad and a woman in track pants tagging along. It takes you a minute, but you think its that guy from the office. You’re not sure, but he’s seen you and looks as though he knows you. You make a sort of non-committed nod of acknowledgment and take half a step in his direction – yes its definitely him. Blimey! You would never have recognised him in a crowd, though now you do its OK and you strike up a conversation straight away, but its that moment of awkward hesitation that’s significant.
Now translate that to a brand scenario. What if a brand that you know and trust, one that you had been married to for years, suddenly acts out of character – a corporate inconsistency, new packaging, a different advertising message, a disappointing experience? It probably wouldn’t make you want a divorce, but there would be that moment of hesitation. And that’s all that your competitors need to step in and introduce themselves, maybe with a little incentive to break the ice. “Hello, I’m just the kind of friend you thought he was, but I come with an extra if you take me home today”. That’s the way longstanding brand relationships can come to a sudden end.
Brand relationships (or “brandships”) are all about knowing and trusting and its vital that you maintain the core character traits that enabled you to establish the relationship in the first place. Of course, brands have to make changes from time to time, its essential if you are going to evolve with your customer base, but there are risks. Avoid them by remembering that its like seeing the guy in the office in a new suit for the first time, provided he hasn’t gone from Gucci to grunge, its just new and interesting, not a complete change of character.
Having said that, it comes down to sensitivity. Changes can be more radical that you might expect – David Bowie (one of my favourite examples of a strong brand) lived characters like Ziggy Stardust that he created and changed music styles dramatically while maintaining a very loyal fan base for longer than most performers, because the key character trait that drew us all to him in the first place was his creativity and character creation, not necessarily a particular persona. Product brands can be the same – Apple, automotive brands, sports teams (different players, same philosophy). In fact I have written recently that brands often forget that they can and should be constantly re-inventing themselves. Be edgy by all means but be so within the framework of your core character traits.
A smart marketer will be able to maintain the freshness of their brand, like the spark in any relationship, without losing the fundamental values upon which the relationship was originally founded, but it works both ways. If you are looking to steal customers from a competitor, wait until you know they are going to make a few changes and make yourself conspicuous.