How Brand Consistency Damages Brands

As a Kinko’s marketing executive, I faced a real quandary upon entering the Los Gatos branch.

The coworkers had taken it upon themselves to decorate the store for Fall. There were leaves and pumpkins and colorful maize all over the counters and shelves, in stark contrast to the official company colors of blue and grey.

Brand integrity was one of my responsibilities, and this store had violated some of the restrictive policies formulated at the company’s headquarters. Some of my peers would have made a show of stripping the decorations down and berating the store manager – a mistake I had made early in my career. This time, I chose to praise the coworkers and take pictures.

Corporate executives almost always misunderstand branding. They think that brands are composed of color schemes, logos, taglines, and positioning statements. They think that brands are created through focus groups, committees and consultants. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Brands are built through customer experience. It’s marketing departments that are built through focus groups, committees and consultants.

The coworkers that decorated the Los Gatos store were proud of their work, and like all human beings, they enjoyed having some control over their environment. The result wasn’t consistent with the company’s official branding guidelines, but it wasn’t damaging to the brand either. This is a distinction many marketing control freaks refuse to make. They worship at the altar of consistency.

In a business where customers and coworkers stand face-to-face every day, coworker engagement matters a lot more than a few deviations from the official color palette. Obviously, if the coworkers’ efforts had made the branch look messy, or interfered with operations or customer comfort, I would have stepped in to make changes – with the coworkers. But these decorations merely brought a bit of personality to an otherwise clinical environment.

Kinko’s founder Paul Orfalea says that when he started expanding the company, a store’s color was determined by whatever paint was on sale. As the company grew, attention to branding offered the benefits of increased recognition as well as economies of scale. If you’re buying enough paint, it’s always on sale.

He saw the value of branding standards, but Paul also recognized that our most important brand element was “the fire in the coworker’s eyes.” Therefore, we tried to strike a balance between corporate branding requirements and local freedom. Balance requires judgment. When you replace human judgment with strict policies and procedures, you turn your coworkers into dead-eyed zombies. This is ironic, because any Marketing Manager worth a dime knows that coworker indifference is the number one killer of customer loyalty.

The balancing act is no small feat. How does your organization protect brand integrity while encouraging individual creativity and innovation?

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