How to Maintain Brand Consistency Across Product Lines
How does Apple demand the attention of the world with press conferences and drive legions of fans to camp overnight for the latest gadget—even when each fan practically has the same gizmo in their pocket already?
Apple's brand has gained such prestige over the years that anything with the company's name—from MP3 players to operating systems—causes widespread intrigue.
"I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Apple guy," says Tom Dougherty, CEO of Stealing Share, a branding firm based in Greensboro, North Carolina, and New York City, whose clients include Time Warner Cable and Jiffy Lube. "I want what the iPhone says about me, not what the iPhone does."
Apple has built up its brand consistency over time with a series of products that reinforce the company's central identity—sleek elegant products that push the boundaries of innovation. And Apple wants you to feel sleek and elegant too: That's why you don't see the Apple logo on pay-as-you-go cell phones or shoddy cassette players.
"There's not one time you touch the Apple brand they don't let you know who you are when you use it," Dougherty says.
Apple's example of brand consistency is the peak of its industry, but experts say you can follow its example by following a few basic tactics.
Maintaining Brand Consistency Across Product Lines: Have the Right Message
Today's super-saturated media environment means you need a precise and finely tuned message that can hone in on the ideal consumers for your product.
"We live in such an over-communicated society that it just takes so long to penetrate and make an impact," says Derrick Daye, managing partner of The Blake Project, which is based in Rochester, New York, Los Angeles, and Frankfurt, Germany. It has worked with Philips and Darden Restaurants, the parent company of Red Lobster and Olive Garden. "If you keep changing that message, the message itself never has time to really take hold in the mind."
The mantra among professionals when it comes to crafting a message is: frequency, consistency, and relevance.
Start by creating a clear identity of what your brand stands for that you will apply across all your products, even if the products are vastly different. Dougherty says this should be done at the company's founding by drafting a brand charter that explains who your products are for—and, just as importantly, who they're not for. New companies often make the mistake of trying to please everyone, and end up pleasing no one.
"It's basically your Constitution and your Bill of Rights rolled into one," he says. "Anything other than what your brand charter states is unconstitutional. You can't do it."
Porsche is a good industry role model for maintaining consistency of targeting affluent drivers, says Brannon Cashion, president of Addison Whitney, a branding company headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, that works with Kellogg's and Marriott.
"When they introduced an SUV it was done in a very Porsche type of way," he says.
Putting a brand statement on paper helps you avoid spending time going after the wrong customers, Dougherty says.
"How can we afford the waste of talking to somebody about something that doesn't matter to them?" he says. "That's the power of brand consistency."
Maintaining Brand Consistency Across Product Lines: Be Persistent in Finding Your Niche
Even if you're entering a flooded marketplace, you always have a chance to make your brand and company stand out. People used to think water was all the same; now stores carry half-a-dozen brands or more.
"Marketers struggle with differentiation because they give up too soon," Daye says. "They think that this can't be differentiated, it can't be unique."
Experts say the constantly shifting marketplace creates the need to be creative with your approach. The toothpaste market is one that professionals cite as a constantly changing product selection that requires vigilance on the part of brand managers. Additives like baking soda, breath freshener, or whitening strips are now taken for granted.
"It almost is now where a lot of the differentiating traits of toothpaste have become either cost of entry or commoditized," Cashion says. "At the time when they came out they were probably unique and differentiating."
Colgate conquered this problem by offering the Total brand— with the word "total" indicating a comprehensive product that covers all those trendy additives.
"It implies depth of offering," he says. "You're looking at a large number of potential SKUs you could by, when you see Total, that implies it's the top of the mountain."
Consumers have come to expect a certain level of innovation and customization—shampoo that targets the specific color and texture of hair, for instance. Experts cite Sony as a company that fell behind in the personal electronics market, so much so that its known mostly for video games instead of its wide range of music players and TVs.
"The brand that stands still is the one that's going to get lapped or passed," Cashion says. "Consumers want to be intrigued by something new and something different."
Customization is the name of the game these days when you're working with multiple brands.
"The ability of that customer to see that this product was made for me, people want to know that this particular product was a good fit," he says. "If there is a connection to that product, then there is extreme loyalty to that product."
Maintaining Brand Consistency Across Product Lines: Maintain Your Overall Perception
Branding is as much about controlling perceptions of your products as it is making sure people are buying the product in the first place. There's a reason you see TAG Heuer watches on the wrist of Leonardo DiCaprio or Nike shoes on LeBron James in ads.
The perception covers many parts of the brand, from packaging and visual presentation to the stores in which the products are offered.
"If you're a high-end luxury brand, you wouldn't expect to see your brand sold at a mass-market big-box type store," Cashion says. In the case of TAG Heuer: "They align themselves with successful winning personalities in the athletic arena and they keep that consistent presentation of who wears those watches. It's kind of a multilayered way to be consistent."
Dougherty says while a company like Ikea has focused its brand well, Target has lost focus due to its ubiquity.
"They understand fundamentally, if they're not five minutes to my house, I'm going to go somewhere else," he says, whereas people go out of their way to find an Ikea. "If they had relevance, I'd be willing to travel to it."
Brad VanAuken, chief brand strategist at The Blake Project, says one way to ensure the right perception stays intact is to create very strict brand licensing requirements that include a tight fit with the brand promise, identity and quality standards.
Scott Yaw, founder of Scott Yaw Associates, a brand-consultanting firm based in Wycombe, Pennsylvania, whose clients include 3M and Black and Decker, says you should make sure to stay in touch with consumers through social media to make sure your brand image still resonates in the right way.
"Social networking sites are the fastest least expensive way to constantly stay in touch with consumer base," he says. "That is where (ideas) are born and that is where they die. When a company loses track, doesn't understand how people think, shop and buy, your days are numbered."
Maintaining Brand Consistency Across Product Lines: Don't Overextend the Brand
The classic—and often fatal—mistake companies make with branding is trying to extend the brand name into areas where it doesn't belong. Levi's found this out when it tried to release a line of high-end suits under the Levi's name, and customers balked at the idea.
"Overextending is a normal thing for someone to do," Yaw says. "It really is the first sign that a company is out of ideas."
Tide, on the other hand, knows that its power is in the realm of detergents, and hasn't tried to put its name elsewhere in its parent Procter & Gamble's line.
"They've done a really good job of keeping Tide very much in that cleaning clothes type of product area," Cashion says. "You don't see Tide stuck on bar soap and you don't see 'Tide' put on toothpaste. Yet those are products that company offers."
Yaw says a company like 3M succeeds across a wide variety of products—from tape and glue sticks to insect repellent and pet hair removers—because the relatively small 3M symbol isn't at the forefront of the packaging but serves to reassure customers they can trust the name.
"3M is nothing more than a product endorser for a high-quality product," he says. "It certainly is 3M's promise of trust."
Not overextending the brand goes back to the point about consistency, VanAuken says. Apple doesn't confuse its image by starting to make clothing or energy drinks because it would muddle the company's sleek image.
"The brand's promise should be clear, compelling, unique, and believable and it should be delivered at each point of customer contact," he says. "This is a conscious and deliberate effort on the organization's part."
TIM DONNELLY | Columnist | Inc.com Contributor
Tim Donnelly is a freelance writer and managing editor of Brokelyn.com. His work has appeared in Billboard, The Atlantic, Thought Catalog, and The New York Post.