When it comes to marketing, there are strong arguments for delivering a consistent message across multiple channels, locations and time. Consistency in brand imagery and communication ensures easy identification and provides reassurance to consumers that they are dealing with a known entity.

Having said that, sometimes a clear shift in direction is necessary to revitalise a brand and stay relevant in changing times. Here we take a look at when it’s best to stick with an existing approach and when it’s necessary to twist.

Consistency in brand imagery and communication ensures easy identification

The power of familiarity

Consumer decision-making is a complex process involving both rational and emotional responses. While some choices are made more carefully than others, we are all influenced at a subconscious level by our existing attitudes and opinions. That includes everything from our knowledge and perceptions of a specific brand to fairly irrational feelings about a broad range of factors including colours, types of packaging or even the language used.

In a world where we are constantly bombarded with information, we have developed short cuts that allow us to go about our day without burning out from overstimulation and the need for constant concentration. That means we rely on prior knowledge and instinctive reactions more than we may realise. Having formed an impression of a brand, we are less likely to spend time re-evaluating that opinion. Decisions concerning that brand become largely automatic, particularly when circumstances remain similar enough to create a sense of familiarity and confidence.

Decisions concerning that brand become largely automatic

That all changes when a brand does something new and unexpected. In this situation, we are jarred out of a state of unconscious processing and forced to assess this fresh direction. While that may not significantly alter our behaviour, there is a chance that this need to re-consider the brand may result in a less than favourable evaluation. Similarly, it may present an opportunity for competitors to capture our attention and encourage us to try something new.

Consistent branding and communication help to avoid a situation where consumers are required to re-assess their existing views, smoothing the path to an ongoing relationship.

Consistency is the foundation of trust

Building trust with customers is considered by many to be the Holy Grail of marketing. Extensive research in this area suggests that trust is a key factor in developing longstanding, positive relationships, helping to reduce risk perception and conflict, decrease transactional costs and encourage effective responses to a crisis.

One way to build trust is through consistent brand behaviour and messaging, ensuring that stakeholders always know what to expect. Conversely, inconsistent behaviour creates a sense of unreliability and damages the confidence people have in that brand. This highlights the importance of ensuring that all of your marketing communications activity is singing from the same song sheet in terms of style, tone and the messages being delivered.

Moving with the times

Being consistent as a brand is so valuable that there are very few times when it pays to deviate from that steady, reliable approach. However, there are occasions when a distinct shift is necessary in order to remain ahead of the game.

Culture is always evolving and what is popular and in vogue at one point may become unfashionable or outdated at some point in the future. New competitors may enter the market offering something new and different. Technology also moves on, making earlier innovations obsolete or ineffective. That means that even the most successful marketing or branding strategy can stop delivering the required results. In that situation, it can pay to change direction, either subtly or more dramatically, in order to reclaim a strong brand position.

There are occasions when a distinct shift is necessary in order to remain ahead

Brand revitalisation is the process of adapting to a new environment and making changes that place the brand or organisation firmly back in the spotlight. That could involve everything from new product development to changing brand elements such as the name, logo or colour palette to create new, more favourable associations.

There’s no doubt that changing name is one of the toughest brand revitalisation challenges but there are plenty of examples of companies that have done so successfully. Think of Kentucky Fried Chicken becoming KFC in a move to remove the word ‘fried’ and appeal to a more heath conscious audience.

Other brands have kept their name but changed their communication style in order to stand out in the market and appeal to a new audience. In 2014, for example, Reebok noticeably changed its brand image, becoming “tougher and darker” and focusing more strongly on hardcore fitness, in an attempt to gain a distinctive position in the highly competitive sports apparel sector.

Mountain Dew is another company that has changed its brand style over the years, to keep up with changing times and tastes. Originally playing on a ‘hillbilly theme’ that resonated well in the 1950s and ‘60s, the brand faced a challenge as cultural ideologies shifted over the decades. Mountain Dew responded with a new campaign entitled “Do the Dew” that targeted young males interested in adventure and high adrenaline sports. This shift proved fruitful and the company is now a multi-billion-dollar brand, surpassed only by Coke and Pepsi within the soft drink category.

Combining consistency and change

While KFC and Mountain Dew are prime examples of companies that have harnessed the power of change, it is also possible to see how consistency has played a role in their continued success. Throughout these periods of reinvention, both brands have reliably delivered on customer expectations in terms of product taste and quality. As such, consumers have been reassured that their perceptions and opinions are still valid, allowing these companies to retain existing customers while reaching out to new segments.

Throughout periods of reinvention, brands have reliably delivered on customer expectations

The moral of the story here is that change is often necessary, but that it should always be built on a strong foundation that maximises positive associations and brand beliefs. The key is to understand what you do well and to deliver on that consistently across all relevant touch points, while adapting as necessary to thrive in an ever-changing market.