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Four Reasons Brands Drift from Standards

By Burkey Belser and Joe Walsh
June 7, 2016
Four Reasons Brands Drift from Standards

We have the good fortune of helping clients conceive and raise some pretty amazing brands. We call our role brand parents. In most instances, we are as proud as any other type of parent.

And then, there are the exceptions.

These are otherwise known as problem children running amok. In these instances, new interpretations of the brand standards hardly resemble the look, feel or voice of the bouncing new arrival. We understand that different parents raise their “babies” differently. As we wrote in our 2013 article, Conceiving and Raising Brands, "if you’ve ever endured a scathing look from a parent as your own child runs amok, you’ll know exactly what we mean."

But why do brands drift and become problems in the first place? And what can you do about it? Let's start with the reasons why. Commonly, we see four. Each progressively harder to manage and resolve than the others.

1. The brand and the standards are not understood. The person who is doing the dressing of the brand — a new ad, a proposal, an event package, whatever — has the very best intentions. He believes in the standards and wants to be part of one happy brand family. But he uses the wrong fonts or colors or misinterpreted the rhetorical approach or mistook the imagery style. Harm, but no foul. This is relatively easy to address because he had the best intentions. Here we recommend training (you can't have enough) and at least an annual brand audit where all the parts of the brand are put on the table and examined for consistency, quality and effectiveness. Trust but verify.

2. The brand stewards (designers, marketers, in-house writers and such) do not have the skills to rise to the level of your brand's intended quality. Think of a English nanny to French children who doesn't speak their language and really doesn't care to learn. The language barrier alone causes trouble. The fix here is in the quality of your design and communications team, along with their commitment to the brand. The level of talent rises to the level of the brand. Strong and constant training and audits help. Also, leave budget to call on your original brand parents occasionally to step in and help out. More on that below.

3. The brand and standards are perceived as "not working for me" by certain people or offerings within your organization. This one is tricky. You may have a service line, industry or program champion who believes their marketing efforts are not well served by the organizational brand. Or worse, they feel the organizational brand actively works against their goals. Essentially, they are saying, "that family is not for me." This is a management issue, not a marketing issue. Yes, there are strategic reasons for a sub-brand to have an identity of its own. The Ritz Carlton is part of the Marriott family, yet maintains its own identity. For most professional service firms and associations this strategy is flawed. Senior management needs to step in. We suggest you also bring in your best outside or inside creative talent to help these outliers back into the fold. More often than not, creativity can show outliers how the brand can work for them.

4. The brand and standards are not liked. This one's a doozy. She (the marketer or their internal client) thinks the brand is the problem child. "That's not how I dress my kids. I'll do my own thing and like it, thank you very much." In professional service firms or associations, where the client is often a partner or director of some sorts, these situations are all too common. The marketer or internal designer has a job to keep and an internal "partner" to satisfy who feels their opinion trumps the marketer's views. Job security leads to brand inconsistency and often chaos. This is also a senior management issue. We'd love to see a GE business unit executive try to invent their own take on the GE brand. Not going to happen.

If all else fails, call the brand parents. They have a vested interest and unique skills in raising the brand right, which is why you hired them in the first place. More probable than not, they'll have time and energy to spare to lend a caring and helping hand. All at a moment's notice.