Building the brand through coherence - Strategic Brand Management

All brands grow through multiplication. The brand begins by introducing variants of the initial new product or service that founded its success. This policy of product differentiation makes it possible to increase the brand’s relevance, enlarge its presence and therefore its visibility, whether online, among distributors, or on the shelf, if applicable. This also increases sales.

Growth also comes from enlarging the initial target market, and the regular concomitant adaptation of the brand’s products. The adoption of new distribution channels often introduces a variation in the offer in order to avoid conflicts between channels, despite the thorny problem of price disparities.

Finally, the conquest of the international market, for example via commercial agents, importers or even subsidiaries, may lead to a loss of control, and therefore to a local reinterpretation of the brand, not to mention the many demands for new products that will inevitably arise under the cover of better meeting the demands of consumers in the country in question.

Growth therefore introduces diversity. Hence the challenge: how to manage this enlivening diversity without losing identity? How to introduce variety without losing the brand’s specificity, without diluting it? This is the problem of the necessary coherence of the brand. What is, for example, the coherence between Chanel No 5, and all the brand’s recent perfumes such as Chance or Egoïste? What coherence is there between Calvin Klein’s ‘wicked’ perfumes Obsession and CK One, aimed at adolescents, and Eternity, a hymn to the family, and Truth?

Since the brand only exists via its products or services, only overall coherence makes it possible to communicate what they have in common: that is, the brand identity. Curiously, the brand coherence criterion is rarely taken into account when evaluating new product projects. These are selected on the basis of their potential sales and profitability, their chances of success in the channel or country in question. The resources available for launching them are also taken into account. The link with the parent brand is a secondary criterion, not perceived to be strategic. The short term is therefore favoured over the long term.

Why brand coherence?

Why worry about coherence? After all, if products are selling well, the company will grow, as will its profits and the brand recognition. However, this is to forget that the company is pursuing another task: increasing its own financial and share valuation, which is affected by the strength of its brands. It is also necessary nowadays to build defences against the cheaper copies that will inevitably emerge on the market. So how does one build a strong brand? Through the total coherence of everything it does, which enables it to emerge from the group of competitors.

For managers, the brand is constructed in stages, from top to bottom: first of all the brand platform is written (the identity of the brand to be created), then the products, services and in-store experiences that best embody them are created. For consumers or customers, it is the other way around: the experience precedes the essence. Their perception of the brand is built through the coherence of their repeated experiences over time.

This is why the first contacts with the brands are determining factors in the formation of a long-term image: in which products/services will the brand be embodied? In what channels? By which retailers, department stores or distributors? In which price quartile? Through which marketing communications? Managers must know in advance what perception they wish to create, and must hold fast to it over time, eliminate any action or product/service that does not conform. There is no brand without strong internal policing and without a strong external coherence as well.

Building the brand involves constructing the perception of the specificity of that brand, its exclusive and motivating added value. In perception, as in teaching, repetition and coherence over time are indispensable. Consumers must be exposed to messages and products that, through their diversity, tell perceptibly the same story, each in its own way.

After all, if the products have the same brand name, it is necessarily because they have something in common. Admittedly Renault Trucks operates on the worldwide truck market and belongs to the Volvo Group, but it carries the Renault brand and therefore cannot have a clashing discourse.

It is clear therefore that to build a brand, the brand must have coherence, and paradoxically, it is the source of its own coherence. This is why good brand management requires a brand platform: that is, a very short document specifying what makes the brand unique. This base is integrative and normative: it must be upheld in order to introduce a necessary coherence if the market is to have a clear, readable perception of the brand.

Of course, repetition should not mean uniformity. Repeating oneself too much is boring: there is not enough innovation, and there are no surprises. Variety, diversity and surprise are ingredients of the modern brand that should permanently stir up interest in it. Too much diversity, however, leads to inefficiency, dispersal and a fuzzy perception of the brand (see Figure below).

The challenge of coherence essentially relates to generalist brands, since their business model is precisely that of encompassing and integrating the ranges of various specialists. They increase in size by doing so, but may lose the perception of uniqueness, both internally (the managers no longer know) and externally (among clients).

Thus in 2006 when Orange replaced the specialist mass internet brand wanadoo, and the Equant brand, a specialist in telecommunications for large companies, the internal managers did not perceive the coherence: they saw a dilution of what used to be the strong coherence of each of these two brands, their uniqueness. An intensive internal programme was necessary for them to grasp the new strategy, and the single Orange brand.

No brand without family resemblance

To understand the notion of brand coherence, it is useful to proceed with an anthropomorphic analogy: that of a family. Two things characterise strong, large families: a strong common ethos (shared values or personality traits) and a certain physical resemblance. We recognise a member of the Kennedy clan at a glance. Admittedly, each member is also different from all the others in terms of personality, but they have a common ethos, and physical elements that identify them.

The same must be true of brands. Growth is normal, as long as the identity is maintained: the basis, and the identifying elements. The family membership must be seen and not merely read (the name common to all): in the end, it must be possible to recognise that a member belongs to the family without reading the name.

A brand name is a point of reference: a sign of added value. The fact of putting a product under this name, to categorise it as such, itself confirms that it is a full member of this family, of this brand. It is therefore necessary to visualize it: hence the importance of packaging, labels, design, and everything that is seen on office fronts, factories and distributors.

This makes it possible to install the common visual elements that will point to a family relationship. This would seem to be self-evident, but often the first efforts of many managers when extending a range are to introduce a high degree of differentiation between its members, reducing their common elements as much as possible.

Family resemblance cannot be reduced to appearances. As the proverb has it, it is not the cowl that makes the monk, but his religion. It is therefore necessary to ensure that all the brand’s products do indeed have the same religion, share the same values, even live them, and express them in their own way.

The objective of family resemblance is not only to create internal coherence and order; it is also a key factor in differentiating a brand from the competition. Of course each product has its own characteristics, but in carrying a name it inherits the promises of this name, which thereby constitute its genuine differentiation amongst its competitors. The main difference between Renault Trucks and DAF or Iveco or MAN is Renault. The same is true for Mercedes trucks.

Take Danone as an example: the central value of the Danone chilled products brand is ‘active good health’. Danone likes the active life-style and contributes to it. This is not a hospital or a diet brand (like Weight Watchers). The extremely broad Danone range from Activia and Actimel, through to the double-cream gourmet dessert Danette.

It could be considered that this constitutes brand incoherence. The gourmet product Danette does not spontaneously evoke ‘active good health’. On the contrary. it is rather the halo attached to the Danone name that differentiates Danette (derived from milk) from its competitors (Cadbury’s, Mont Blanc cream desserts, Mars bars and so on). This halo of active good health, carried by the parent brand, is the lever of difference.

Coherence is not uniformity. In mature markets, an excess of uniformity kills desire. The growth of the brand via an extension of its product range nevertheless occurs by upholding the brand’s central values, or it will run the risk of diluting its specificity. At the same time, too great a resemblance between the models and versions of the brand damages the impression of renewal, and makes it impossible to indicate a clear differentiation within the range. This double requirement is almost contradictory: this is the challenge of brands today.

What cognitive psychology tells us: there are degrees of coherence

How, then, can we manage both resemblance and diversity? How can we include coherence without creating uniformity? In order to move forward on the operational level, a detour through theory will be useful. The questions above are precisely the subject of what is known as cognitive psychology, the study of how people think and form categories.

The notion of coherence is not binary: there are degrees of coherence. To return to the brand, this means that not all the products represent the brand in the same way and to the same degree, in the same way that the members of a family do not all have the family resemblance to the same degree.

One of the central subjects of cognitive psychology is understanding the way in which we categorise real objects. In fact, the human mind is constantly sorting, classing objects together in order to reduce diversity and render reality simpler and more comprehensible. This task is known as categorisation. We invent categories.

The modern, polymorphous brand, spread over several markets in different guises, cannot be considered simply as an example of a single category. Danone is not a kind of yoghurt. It is yoghurts, of course, but it is also bottled water, and dried biscuits in Asia. Nestlé gives its name to coffee, and to orange juice in Brazil, to chocolate, baby products, ice creams, iced tea and so on.

The modern brand is itself in reality an abstract category, and thus a concept, which is manifested through products. The question of the inclusion/ exclusion of these products under the umbrella of the ‘brand’ supposes an understanding of the laws of categorisation. This analysis will be based on the major works of psychologists such as Lakoff (1987) and Boush (1993) in order to fuel the practice of brand management with their key contributions.

Mention is often made of the ‘brand concept’. It is necessary to take this declaration literally: the brand is, and indeed works in the same way as, a concept. It is a concept in the same way that ‘bird’ is a concept, or ‘game’. A concept is an abstraction that determines what goes together, and what could possibly be brought together under the same denomination. A concept is therefore a fantastic tool for inclusion and differentiation. We can begin to see the link with the brand here.

Let us take the concept of ‘bird’, which makes it possible to consider that things as different as a hummingbird and a parrot or a hen belong in fact to the same category (bird), whereas a butterfly (which also flies) cannot. However, an ostrich – which does not fly – is also a bird. The concept is therefore a classification mechanism, for bringing things together that may be very different in appearance.

In order to classify and bring together or exclude objects, the concept must have a content and a rule for admissibility/exclusion:

  • Certain concepts class things according to the presence or absence of characteristics: for example, a bird is an animal that lays eggs and has feathers, and which can usually (but not always) fly. We see therefore that certain characteristics are essential (egg-laying, feathers), but others are not necessary for inclusion (flight). Either it is, or it is not, a bird. The frontier of the ‘bird’ concept is relatively clear-cut. A butterfly has no feathers and is therefore not a bird.
  • Certain concepts bring things together on the basis of a group of factors, linked less to the object than to the effect of the object. Take ‘game’ as an example. What is a game? Thinking about it, the definition is a tricky one: what relationship is there between poker and hopscotch? Between chess (called a game of chess) and a game of hide and seek? Probably the answer lies in the motivations and gratifications that cause us to spend time on these activities, rather than the innate characteristics of the different occupations called ‘games’.
  • Finally, certain concepts bring things together in a symbolic manner: what is ‘good’? Under the umbrella of ‘good’, we must be able to include some very disparate examples, provided that they symbolize ‘goodness’.This detour via cognitive psychology does not deviate from the question of brands.
  • The first type of concept is typically that of specialised brands, with a highly typified product. A Saab, for example, is recognized through its design, its sounds and the driving experience. Porsche is too, but not Toyota.
  • The second type of concept would involve a brand such as Volvo. Volvo is summed up in a word: safety, an advantage for users. Volvo is synonymous with security, even in very different markets: public works, cranes, trucks, cars and so on.
  • The third type of concept is called ‘metaphorical’. Take Nivea: when asked, the managers of this brand repeat ad infinitum that the Nivea concept is summed up by ‘Love and care’. Its expression in cosmetic products is of a metaphorical kind as regards ‘love’. The notion of care can be taken at both a physical level (skin care) and a psychological level (self-care).

Comparing these three types of concept, R van der Vorst (2004) has rightly emphasized that their capacity for integrating variety differs widely. Concepts of the first type (known as taxonomic) are highly specific about their inclusion criteria. As such, they allow very little product variety. The frontiers of the brand are precise.

At the other extreme, certain concepts are relatively vague on the nature of their members. Saying, as France Telecom does, that it is ‘the brand of relationships’ was fairly non-specific, but consequently rendered the brand open to variety. Its frontiers, however, were not clear.

At this point, a return to cognitive psychology is necessary. It teaches that a category may be defined either by its frontiers, or by its members. In fact, if we take the concept of ‘game’, it has no frontiers. At its furthest limit, anything could be a game as long as one took pleasure from it. You might think this is overly confusing, and taking it too far.

Cognitive psychology teaches that these categories are however ordered: not all members have the same status, the same representativeness. Some are very good examples of the category, others are less good examples. For example, each person spontaneously thinks of a particular game on hearing the word ‘game’.

For children it may be hopscotch; for adults, card games. All games can be classed in this way according to their perceived degree of representativeness of the concept ‘game’. The most typical game, the best example, is called the ‘prototype’ (McGarty, 1999). The concept may not have clear frontiers, but its core, on the other hand, is precise, typified by the best example (the prototype).

To return to brands, the psychology of prototypes proves enlightening. What are the frontiers of the Nestlé brand? The brand regularly pushes them back by putting its name to more and more different products. Consumers, however, have no difficulty in classing the products marked Nestlé in order of representativeness, from the most typical to the least typical.

Everything works as though they compared each product to the prototype of good Nestlé baby milk. The prototype is not necessarily a product: it can be a person. Richard Branson is the prototype of the Virgin brand: daring, fun and very friendly. This was also the case for Steve Jobs. He embodied ‘Apple know-how’, and the dwindling brand found a second wind when he returned to take charge. He is also symbolic of Apple values: simplicity, conviviality and creativity.

Relationships between concepts and examples, brand and products

As it is with concepts, so it is with brands. Two levels must be distinguished. The abstract level specifies the meaning of the concept (the brand meaning, the essence of its identity). The second level is that of the brand’s embodiments, its products or services.

At the conceptual (brand) level, it is also necessary to distinguish between those facets of its identity that are essential, and those that are not necessary, which can be called ‘peripheral’. This distinction is based on the contributions of social and representational psychology.

Working on social stereotypes, researchers such as Asch (1946) and more recently in France Abric (1994), and in marketing Mischel (2000), have emphasized the need to sort those facets of identity without which the brand is no longer itself from the other, more peripheral facets. The first group are ‘core facets’. For Apple, these were summarised as creativity, simplicity and conviviality. Design for Apple would be a more peripheral trait, specific to the iPod or iMac.

The product level is that of the embodiment of the brand identity. Placing the same name on several products is to tell or promise consumers that there is a certain equivalence between these products. Nevertheless, not all products represent the brand to the same degree. R van der Vorst (2004) recalls that products are constantly in competition. From this point of view, it is important to distinguish those facets of a product that are distinctive and differentiate from their competitors in that segment, and those that are not. Thus colour was highly differentiating for the iMac, not its memory capacity.

It is therefore possible to identify four types of relationship between brand and products, between the distinctive facets of the products and the essence of the brand (the facets of its core identity). (See Figure below)

  • The ‘typical example’ relationship. In this case, the facets of the core identity of the brand are also the distinctive facets of the product, and vice versa.
  • The ‘similarity’ relationship. In this case, the distinctive facets of the product are the same as those of the core identity, with one or two additional facets specific to the product (colour, for the iMac).
  • The ‘transformation’ relationship. In this case, one of the facets of the core is not found in the product’s distinctive facets. This is the case with iTunes for Apple.
  • The ‘contradiction’ relationship. In this case, not only is one of the identifying values not embodied in the product, but it is contradicted by a specific facet of the product in question. The Mac Quadra, a computer created by Apple and intended for company executives, might be thought to be such a case.

Throughout the development of a brand, it is expressed through examples. The primary best-seller becomes the brand’s ‘prototype’, that which shapes the identity of which it is the living and recognised symbol. The small blue tub of Nivea is the ‘prototype’ of Nivea. In fact, Nivea breaks into all countries through this universal product, which sums up the essence of the brand (love and care) and its associated values (accessibility, universality, simplicity, closeness).

This is the first contact for most families throughout the world: everyone uses Nivea moisturizing cream with its pleasant smell. Then the brand develops other self-care product lines, or other examples of the brand that are very similar to the prototype, aimed at a specific target or a particular use: for hands, against sun damage, for children and so on. Of course each one of these must have a specific element, in order to take into account competition in the segment. Their fatal weapon of differentiation, however, derives essentially from the respect for the brand’s values and the status that the fact of carrying this brand name confers.

Then Nivea enlarges the circle of its product lines by introducing lines that are transformations of the brand (a key facet may be absent from the product’s differentiating elements): deodorant lines, alcohol-based products for men, not to mention Nivea Beauty, where care is absent since it is a wide range of beauty products, of pure seduction (mascara, lipstick, eye shadow and so on). It might be asked whether Nivea Beauty was not in fact a contradiction from this point of view: not only was the care value missing from the distinctive facets of these products, arguably their sales arguments (seduction, artificiality) were contradictory to the brand’s essence.

The different relationships between brands and products

The different relationships between brands and products

Growth, diversity and managing coherence

Brand coherence is rarely instilled from the beginning. The need for it is only felt when sales stabilise, when margins are reducing and price competition intensifies. Then it becomes necessary to close ranks and hunt down any inefficiencies in order to rededicate financial resources to innovation and communication.

The multiplication of products without coherence leads to enormous waste of energy and money. Instead of building a strong, distinctive, unique brand, products are scattered widely under a single name. The first step is therefore to begin again from the name.

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