A Brand Manager can often get a bad reputation as the “brand police.” This reputation isn’t entirely unfounded. As a Brand Manager, your role is to help the brand grow, which is often done by protecting it. Of course, brands will need to evolve over time to remain relevant, but major changes to a brand shouldn’t be made on an adhoc basis. If someone tries to change the colour of a brand I manage or do something out of the brand’s character, I calmly explain that “I have a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career, skills that make me a nightmare for people like them.” That’s actually a quote from the great Brian Mills, but you get the gist. To illustrate the importance of being consistently consistent, we can look at Coke, the undisputed market leader in their category, and Pepsi, the market underdog.
Coke and Pepsi have been rivals for over 100 years. Because Coke dominates the cola market, I naturally assumed that they were the older brand. Still, I was surprised to learn both established in America in the late nineteenth century by pharmacists. Yet, despite people preferring Pepsi’s taste, Coke has a brand value of $63bn compared to Pepsi’s $20bn.
So what makes Coke so special? I believe that their key to success is their ability to weave their way into our lives. For many, Coke is more than a soft drink, it is part of their identity and history. They’ve long known the value of building brand love and will align themselves to key cultural moments like Christmas.
Even though Brand Managers spend their lives nurturing and building brands, the best they can do is shape the way people think and feel about the brand because their brand exists only in someone’s mind. You may think this existential belief is exaggerated, but the psychological relationships we have with brands begin very early.
A case in point is the Ferguson family day out. All of these photos are of me, happily sipping on a can of Coke before I could even talk. Growing up, we only ever had Coke on family days out, and as a result of this habit, I have fond memories of Coke. You could argue that their strongest brand assets are the memories that people have of their brand.
“If Coca-Cola were to lose all of its production-related assets in a disaster, the company would survive. By contrast, if all consumers were to have a sudden lapse of memory and forget everything related to Coca-Cola, the company would go out of business.” – Senior Coca-Cola executive.
Their 1971 ad “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” is considered the world’s most famous ad. With their many marketing successes, it seems only fair that they also have the title of “worst marketing blunder in history.”
Coke’s blunder is an excellent example of the importance of consistency for brands. We are creatures of habit. For brands, this means that people like things that are familiar because they trust them. Behavioural economics shows that when choosing a brand, we will often default to ones that we are familiar with, as this means we don’t have to overthink things. When a brand starts behaving erratically or suddenly changes without strong insight or rationale for doing so, the consequences can be substantial.
To find out where it all went wrong, we need to go back to the 1980’s, when everyone had big hair and shoulder pads, we were playing pac man and space invaders and Time Magazine named “The Computer” as their Man of the Year. In 1985 Coke announced that they had changed their original formula and launched ‘new Coke.’ The new formula had a similar taste profile to that of its rival Pepsi, who had seen its market share steadily grow following its Pepsi challenge’s success.
Coke severely underestimated people’s sentimental attachment to their brand. After 40,000 letters of complaints, Coke backtracked on their decision, recalled “New Coke” and launched Coke “Classic.” This news interrupted TV scheduling in America, meaning that everyone went about their daily lives again.
Despite being widely recognised as one of the worst marketing blunders in history, Coke saw their sales increase when they bought back “Coke Classic” leading some sceptics to claim that “New Coke” was an elaborate PR stunt.
One of my favourite marketing books is written by Javier Sanchez Lamelas who worked at Coca Cola for over a decade. During that time, he held the title of Vice President of Marketing for Europe. In his book ‘Martketing – the heart and brain of branding’ Javier he advocates the importance of consistency for brands.
‘Lack of consistency is probably one of the most important reasons why brand love suffers irreversible damage. As in any relationship, your brand can have a complex and rich personality. That’s fine. However, as soon as you exhibit signs of random behaviour, the relationship starts to break up. Consistency does not mean being boring or repetitive – consistency means being true to the vales you’ve chosen for the brand.’
As a brand manager, you’ll often find yourself in a position where you’re presented with an idea for something that you know isn’t right for your brand. In this scenario, I recommend that you first take the time to understand their rationale. Then having taken on board their concerns, you need to work with them to come to a resolution together while protecting the brand’s integrity. It is your role to help them understand the importance of consistency for brands. If in doubt, this is where your brand values can help to guide strategic decision making. I’ll finish with one of my favourite quotes from the author John C. Maxwell. If you’re still being pressured into sporadically making changes to your brand, tell them the story of “New Coke” and explain that
‘A wise person learns from his mistakes. A wiser one learns from others’ mistakes. But the wisest person of all learns from others’s successes.’