OPINION7 June 2024

The curse of consistency

Media Opinion Trends

Is consistency always good for brands? Sam Salama examines the intricacies of when to be different.

Taxis in a traffic jam

It’s easy to see why we love consistency: we’re told it’s the key to wealth and success. Michael Phelps, Dwayne Johnson, and Khloe Kardashian are among the celebrities who argue their fame isn’t driven by talent, but by consistency: repeating the same approach over a sustained period of time.

Consistency is supposedly key for marketers as well; two recent headlines claim that it’s a top priority for growth and the key to successful branding.  

But the charm of consistency has also been its downfall. It has popularised the idea that brands simply ‘need to do the same thing’ in order to succeed – forgetting that consistency means different things in the context of Olympic glory and brand growth.

In reality, it’s not consistency that marketers should be striving for – but coherence. Those who understand this nuance can use it to their advantage. Those who don’t are set up to fail.

The charm of consistency
There are three factors that explain the particular allure of consistency within marketing. Firstly, the booming doctrine of distinctiveness; branding is, first and foremost, the creation of assets (e.g. logos, slogans) that are memorable and easily identifiable. And, as advocate Byron Sharp puts it, “you cannot be distinctive if you are not consistent”.

Secondly, consistency is the key to comparison. If you want to track brand perceptions, evaluate an ad campaign, or judge performance against competitors, you need to use the same method and metrics over time. Any inconsistency prevents reliable ratings. 

Thirdly, consistency is embedded in marketing folklore. The two Davids – Ogilvy and Aaker – are among the many industry icons who have praised it, with the latter including it in his list of 10 ways to build strong brands.

To be clear, none of these points are incorrect. The problem is using basic consistency too broadly: applying it to brand growth and comms strategy, not just assets and measurement.

Failure to adapt
Most brands wouldn’t last long if they stayed exactly the same. The ever changing consumer landscape means they have to constantly adapt in order to survive. The New York Times has invested heavily in gaming in recent years, helping to combat low ad revenues and news fatigue. Subscribers now spend more time playing games, like Wordle, than reading news. Similarly Charles Tyrwhitt is thriving post Covid-19, having diversified its range away from suits and towards work from home gear: polo shirts, zip-neck jumpers and hoodies.

On the other hand, failure to adapt is a common cause of brand decline. Kodak famously collapsed because it failed to embrace digital photography, fearing that it would cannibalise its existing film business. By the time cameras became mostly digital, and then part of smartphones, it was too late. 

Hampering innovation
Even if brands don’t face existential threats like Covid, they still need to innovate in order to grow; developing new products and business models, not hiding behind the comfort of consistency.

Since its creation as an online book seller, Amazon has expanded into groceries (Wholefoods), film (Prime Video and MGM), smart speakers (Alexa) and a range of other sectors. As a result, it continues to reach new customers and provide a differentiated experience for existing customers.

Of course Amazon is a digital first brand, and the poster child of innovation. But even the most established brands adapt their offer in order to grow, whether it’s Guinness selling alcohol-free beer, or McDonald’s transitioning towards reward schemes.

Bland advertising
Brilliant ads require big ideas. But why strive for that when you can rely on existing material? Nils Leonard, co-founder of Uncommon agency, puts it bluntly: “consistency is an excuse in the advertising industry for not making something that actually matters.” Instead, fresh thinking is needed in order for ads to break category norms and stand out.

Yes, communications consistency is important for familiarity and the creation of distinctive assets. It’s the reason an animated carrot makes us think of Aldi. But even these assets must go beyond basic consistency. Distinctiveness is an active process, and assets require subtle evolution to continually surprise consumers and grab their attention. Aldi has shown the same carrot for nearly a decade, but has done so via new and intriguing storylines; for instance, a re-telling of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory last Christmas.

Coherence trumps consistency
Evidently, doing the same thing isn’t a winning approach. Brands need to create something new. But how to go about it?

The key is coherence: evolving brands in a way that reinforces their original positioning, and ensuring this applies across all consumer touchpoints.

It’s why the New York Times ventured into gaming: to maintain its status as the ‘essential subscription for every curious, English-speaking person’. And it explains how Amazon can move into sectors completely unrelated to e-commerce. The core promise of convenience remains the same in Prime Video as it does in Wholefoods.

All these examples highlight how brands retain their identity in order to adapt and stay relevant. The Italian novelist Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa once wrote: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” This gets to the core of consistency better than any marketing textbook. Ironic for an industry that prefers fact over fiction.

Sam Salama is associate director at Basis Research