What is brand harmony and why does it matter?

August 18, 2010

Perhaps I am drinking my own Kool-Aid a bit too much, but I continue to be amazed at the disconnect I often see between "the brand" and "the business" with corporate clients.

Among my branding peers, we’re all pretty consistent in our view of a brand as a sum of experiences. Clients at the front lines of "the business" (whatever that business might be), share a common understanding that delivering on a relevant, compelling and differentiated promise builds loyalty. Yet, while this makes sense logically, many fail to see beyond the siloed needs of their own functional area to appreciate the broader context of how it all comes together in the mind of the customer.

Clients often point to brands like JetBlue or Apple, citing their ability to build a successful brand that has helped to separate them from their peers. Yet the success of companies like this comes from a conscious and considered effort to match the product with the experience and the message with the messenger. Would JetBlue’s promise of a truly different flying experience be quite the same without a business model that supports one class for all passengers (no first/business class)? Would Apple’s “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” campaign have been so successful without the full support and participation by product development teams to make sure that the underlying "ease of use" promise permeates the user experience?

The brand to business disconnect was recently taken to catastrophic extremes with BP in the Gulf. On the brand side, we have Beyond Petroleum, a promise to do more: more for alternative energy, more for conservation, more for the planet. On the business side, we have a company where the Gulf is collateral damage to standard operating procedures. As we learn more and more about BP, it seems that cost-cutting and "acceptable risk" were far more prevalent considerations across operations than was Beyond Petroleum. That green sun, alas, was little more than an ornament.

BP aside, brand dissonance happens in more mundane fashion on a daily basis. AT&T, the company with "more bars in more places" continues to frustrate users with connectivity/network issues. The brand was ahead of the real-world experience — and customers were scratching their heads. While AT&T has been investing heavily to beef up their network, the disconnect between promise and performance continued to attract consumer attention (and ire). So, AT&T does the only logical thing: they drop the "more bars" campaign in favor of the rather intangible Rethink Possible. A cynic may see this as a tacit acknowledgement of service underperformance, yet the spin is more about this broader (and more vague and fanciful) end-benefit of the brand. In short: dissonance averted by avoiding specific promises about performance, whew.

In a recent example in the non-profit world, Susan G. Komen For the Cure teamed up with KFC on pink-ribboned buckets of fried chicken. The organization’s mission and messaging, the brand, is focused on research and education towards a cure for breast cancer. On the "business" side, fundraising efforts include a major partnership with KFC that effectively encourages people towards an unhealthy diet. Nobody connected the dots on this one? “Buckets for the Cure" — what were they thinking?

Ultimately, the goal is not so much to avoid dissonance as it is about creating harmony. For those that don’t have the budget of AT&T (and even for those who do), vague and fanciful message is not a great strategy. While it may sound self-serving coming from a brand consultant, harmony is the product of a compelling and differentiating brand that can be felt within every interaction. When brand drives the experience, the result is a deeper, richer, more identifiable position in the mind of your customer.

If your brand feels like window dressing on your business, than it probably is. Avoid the disconnect. Seek brand harmony. Your business will thank you for it.

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