How, specifically, does a brand function? How are the relationships expressed between the brand and the products or services it sells? What are the consequences? What is brand coherence?
To borrow an expression from G. Mitchel (2000), the brand is fundamentally a system that integrates and differentiates. The brand is first of all a tool of integration: it is a tool of coherence, by bringing together under its name a range of products and services, each of which must carry the central brand values.
A product or service that is not representative of the brand must not carry the brand name. The brand is an explicit normative system: the brand’s central values must be known internally and by everyone who has to set the brand in process. They are incumbent on them: we should therefore expect to find them in the products, services and communications.
Admittedly, a Toyota at the bottom of the range does not have all the qualities of a top of the range model, but it should embody all the central values of Toyota (for example, exemplary reliability and an excellent quality–price ratio). This is why there cannot be many central brand values.
In the factfinding mission for Peugeot and Citroen, the recommendation was for three per brand: dynamism, aesthetics and value for Peugeot, self-expression, comfort and inventiveness for Citroen. France, as is well known, is in crisis because she can no longer be run while respecting the three central values she set for herself: liberty, equality and fraternity. Too many tacitly accepted decisions or social factors contradict one of these values.
The brand is also a tool of differentiation: its name sets all its products apart, through their common tangible and intangible values. Because it carries the logo of Danone, whose central value is active good health, Danette, although it is sugary and rich, appears much healthier than a Mars or Lion bar, typically associated with obesity, or a creamy Mont Blanc dessert.
Like any well-managed brand, Virgin has explicitly stated its brand values: this is what is known as a brand platform. Virgin has six central values, those that belong to its identity kernel. They are ‘fun, good quality/price ratio, quality, innovation, challenge, and brilliant client service’.
This is its brand contract: as such it is non-negotiable. In fact, in everything that Virgin does, we can find these six ingredients. Hence the brand inspires respect, even if many of its attempts fail. These values are necessary because they help internally to decide whether a decision, action, product or service is ‘Virgin enough’ to be put on the market to face the competition.
Naturally, depending on the products within a range, not everything will represent the brand values with the same relative intensity. A Virgin soft drink will have a lot of ‘fun’, but even Virgin Atlantic Business Class needs to have a little ‘fun’ about it, because otherwise it would not be Virgin, and because this is what differentiates it from the business classes of competing airlines.
These brand values are not invented: they are present from the first product that the brand produces. This is the founding product or service that carries the meaning of a word previously unknown on the market (the brand name). Its commercial success confirms the relevance of these values, and this is strengthened by the extension of the range, which then constitutes the ‘core business’.
Later, the brand will extend into other businesses, segments and markets, but always under the name of the same values, integrating the whole and differentiating it from the competitors in each market or segment. Andros, an SME from the Lot region of France, based in Biars, began by developing a mass distribution jam business. That became its core business. Then its competence in fruit and the trust attached to its name led it to penetrate other segments: compotes (against the Materne brand) and now fruit juices (against Tropicana, Joker and other brands).
Brand values and segment expectations
The brand’s products must therefore all embody in their way all the central values of the brand, hence the necessity of restricting these in number to avoid creating paralysis. The brand is built through the coherence it imposes on everything it does, and which will be therefore lived experientially by the client.
If there are too many central brand values to maintain, the brand cannot evolve. It is therefore necessary to differentiate between so-called ‘central’ values, that is, those values that are non-negotiable, and those known as ‘peripheral’ values, which may be present here but not there, in one market segment but not in another.
In fact, the brand’s products, since they are each in competition in their particular segment with different competitors, should have specific ‘pluses’ that do not emanate from the brand’s central values. Thus Nivea sun cream must be hypo-allergenic, which is highly coherent with Nivea’s central value (taking care of oneself), but also add scientific reassurance (not a central value for Nivea), since it is in competition with sun creams from the giants in active cosmetics (the l’Oréal and Estée Lauder groups), which have established science as the dominant code of this market of protecting the skin from sun damage.
The double role of brands integration and differentiation
At the operational level, in order to manage a brand, the first thing to do is to specify clearly what is part of the brand’s kernel (its central values and traits) and what could be variable, since it is peripheral, specific to each segment. This sorting must be explicit (written in a brand platform and diffused via an intranet), and should deal not only with the fundamental values, but also the personality traits of the brand and its tangible aspects. It is notable that Virgin included its ‘fun’ side (a personality trait) in the central facets of the brand identity.
The exercise of sorting out what is negotiable or even variable, adaptable, must equally involve the physical aspects of the client experience. For the Novotel brand, for example, it is necessary to specify whether its blue colour is negotiable or not, and also the appearance of the reception area in each hotel, the arrangement of the rooms, their furnishings and the level of service.
Within a single country, even a region, the client experience cannot fluctuate: this is the effort that must be undertaken in order for the brand to become a benchmark of the quality it wishes to symbolise in an exemplary manner, and on which its reputation will be built. The answer is much less obvious from one continent to another.
In fact, the Novotel on Broadway is in competition with other hotels with American standards, in the same way that the one in Bangkok on the banks of the Chao Praya is in competition with the mythical Hotel Oriental: it must be brought up to Asian standards, the highest in the world. Nevertheless, within the portfolio of Accor Group hotels, the hierarchy is always respected: the Bangkok Novotel does not offer the same level of services as the Bangkok Sofitel.
For service brands, rendering the client experience invariable is a challenge: Air France, with its 15,000 employees, has more difficulty homogenising its in-flight services than, for example, Lufthansa or Singapore Airlines. From one flight to the next, the service delivered is variable, since the company’s young stewards and stewardesses show a degree of heterogeneity.
Figure below provides a reminder that there must also be a physical brand signature, experiential and perceptible. It cannot be reduced to an intangible. Concretely, what must be the physical signature of all Martell cognacs, in comparison with all Hennessy cognacs? What is the physical signature of Lancôme compared with that of Estée Lauder products? It is up to the R&D researchers at Lancôme or the cellar masters in the case of Martell to answer: customers do not have this acuity of judgement.
Differentiate what is variable from what is non-negotiable in the brand identity