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Secret of branding? Consistency, consistency, consistency

On a recent Saturday afternoon, my nine-year-old daughter and I were doing some typical weekend “running around,” as we in the South call it. Around lunch time, we pulled into a McDonald’s, went inside, ordered and sat down to our favorite value meals.

This particular McDonald’s restaurant was designed in a retro-style. Tables and chairs were reminiscent of the 1950s. On the central wall was mural of a generic Eisenhower-age McDonald’s. The sign below the Golden Arches in the mural read “Over 100 million served.” As we all know, the sign now reads “Over one billion served.”

Being the type of person who can’t seem to leave the office behind, this started me thinking about the success and longevity of the McDonald’s brand. I struck up a conversation with my daughter.

“Do you know why McDonald’s has been so successful?” I asked.

“Because it’s good,” she said, matter-of-factly.

“Nope,” I replied.

“Because people like it,” she said again.

“Nope,” I said again. “People like McDonald’s because they know what they’re going to get.”

She looked puzzled, so I expounded, virtually forgetting I was talking with a nine-year-old.

“McDonald’s is consistent. The food always tastes the same, and the experience is always practically the same. This doesn’t mean that it is good; that’s not what is important.”

“I think it’s good,” she said.

I continued, now practically oblivious to my surroundings, “In many instances, people will trade quality for consistency — knowing what to expect. Over time, people even come to mistake consistency for quality. Successfully selling on a mass scale, and sustaining this success, does require some degree of quality, but consistency is a more important factor. A restaurant that sometimes may be excellent and other times horrible will not survive long, but the landscape is littered with successful restaurants who serve consistently average food.”

My daughter looked at me with a blank stare.

“Consistency is the key to success,” I said, “and that’s a fact.”

“Yeah, a boring fact,” she said, with her overused sarcastic tone.

“May be,” I said, “but that boring fact has sold a lot of hamburgers.”

Other than a peak into the author’s weekends, what does this little anecdote teach us? That consistency can give businesses an advantage in the marketplace, and inconsistency can mean death. Now, how does consistency apply to branding, marketing, and advertising?

Any college student taking an elective marketing class can tell you that being consistent with your branding is a key to building strong brand awareness. This doesn’t meant that you have to run the same ad over and over again, or that every brochure has to look the same. However, consistent elements — the look, feel, tone, and personality of your brand — should be carried across all of the advertising that you do.

Consistency gives customers the reassurance that your brand is safe, legitimate and has longevity. That’s why Coca-Cola will always be red, and why McDonald’s will always have the golden arches.

If the secret to successful real estate is “location, location, location,” then the secret to successful branding is “consistency, consistency, consistency.” Sure, lots of other aspects help to build a successful brand, but without consistency, your other efforts mean little. A million-dollar home will be lucky to sell for $300,000 in a bad location, just as a great advertising campaign will generate few long-term customers without consistent branding.
You could take that same McDonald’s hamburger, conceal it in a blue wrapper, and I would have to force my daughter to take her first bite. Why? She doesn’t know what she’s getting.

If the tenet is true that most people hate change (and they do), then an ever-changing brand will alienate the majority of potential customers. Even customers the brand may attract will not remain loyal when the tone and personality changes.

Case in point — Ronald McDonald hasn’t changed much over the years, and we’ve always had the golden arches. Practically since fast food was born, McDonald’s has remained the number one brand in terms of market share. For a long time, Kentucky Fried Chicken was a strong number two in the category. Within the last 15 years, Kentucky Fried has changed its name to “KFC,” and given “the Colonel” a hip new look. The chain has dropped out of the top five in terms of market share, and now is planning to revert back to “Kentucky Fried Chicken” as its official name. However, the company is also redesigning stores with more of a modern-style décor, and even giving the Colonel another make-over to be even hipper.

This author’s bet — it won’t work. Somewhere Ronald McDonald is laughing.

Tim Mask is vice president of brand planning and development at Maris, West & Baker advertising in Jackson. He can be reached at tmask@mwb.com.

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