Secret formulas & special sauces: Elements of strong brands
What makes a strong brand? Is it the name of your product or company? Your logo or typeface?
Your website or mobile app? The look of your ads? Is it your media budget?
Coming from an ad agency, you might expect me to say it is indeed one of the elements above, but all of these are only ways to help communicate the essence of your brand.
A brand is a promise. Specifically, it’s a promise to deliver a honest and consistent experience. You can have the flashiest, most expensive ad campaign, but if the product or service does not live up to the hype, sooner or later people will figure it out. Over time, your brand will come to mean the experience of using it, so it had better be a good experience.
Your customers are not idiots. They know what they are buying and they also know what they are getting. If the quality of your product changes, they will notice.
That is why it is important to understand who you are as a company and what your product offers to customers. Do not try to convince people that you are something that you are not. This is a promise that you will not be able to keep. If your product or company needs to change to meet your customers’ evolving needs, you must actually change it. Be transparent about why you are changing and the steps you are taking.
A great example of a company using honesty and transparency to transform a misstep into a deeper connection with their customers is Coca-Cola’s 1985 decision to change the formula of their flagship drink. All of the top-secret research they conducted seemed to show that people liked the new formula better. There is still some debate about why New Coke failed – some analysts credit the nostalgia and emotional attachment to the original formula, while others blame peer pressure from a small but vocal minority. Regardless of the reason, Coca-Cola brought back the original formula after only 77 days. The triumphant return of what was then called Coca-Cola Classic substantially increased their sales and reinvigorated the brand.
Consistency is the essence of your brand promise. It is the very reason your customers return. That is not to say that your product can never change, but that change must be handled in an honest, open manner that is consistent with your brand. Incremental change is one way to maintain consistency while introducing change to adapt to evolving market forces.
Whether you are a regular customer or not, chances are you have eaten at McDonald’s at some point in your life. And, if you have eaten at one McDonald’s, you have eaten at them all. When it comes to food science, McDonald’s is one of the most advanced companies out there. They have figured out how to keep the brand experience almost identical in every restaurant and drive thru.
McDonald’s cares so much about consistency! When they opened the first branch in Moscow and discovered that Russian potatoes were not large enough to make the traditionally long McDonald’s fries, they planted special fields to grow Idaho potatoes in Russia. They also have a specially calibrated “sauce gun” that squirts the exact same amount of special sauce onto each Big Mac. In fact, since its introduction, McDonald’s has not changed the recipe of the Big Mac at all. They know that too many people would be upset if it changed.
But, while McDonald’s is known for extreme consistency, they are also known for menu experiments and innovation. A recent example is their foray into flat bread sandwiches, salads and premium coffee. The key is that they provide new options for their regular customers to try without removing the cherished favorites. When the Big Mac was introduced, McDonald’s allowed it to succeed on its own merits; it did not replace the cheeseburger. Similarly, when the Arch Deluxe failed in the ‘90s, McDonald’s allowed to fail on its own merits. In contrast to Coca Cola’s experience, there was no negative backlash from customers about the Arch Deluxe; they simply continued eating their Big Macs.
Whatever the specific attributes your brand provides, honesty about their value and consistency in delivery are what make your brand promise credible.