Should Brands Be Single-Minded in a Multi-Touch-Point World?
By Sandra Creamer

I’m a strong believer in the notion that brands – whether you’re talking about products or companies – should be “single-minded” about who they are. But what about social media, programmatic media buys and the proliferation of touch points created by the trend toward omni-channel marketing? Don’t you need to sacrifice the brevity and clarity of a single, overarching idea if you are to have any hope of coping with the complexity of today’s media environment? Not at all. The key is to take a more nuanced view of the challenge.

For starters, single-minded doesn’t mean a single benefit. Plenty of longstanding and popular brands tout their multifaceted upsides (see the popularity of “all-in-one” or “3-in-one” statements, etc.). At the same time, however, all of these brands can explain themselves with clear, simple words or a single, straightforward phrase. This enables them to stay focused whether the channel is TV, print, packaging, store displays or digital media. After all, competing for the attention of today’s multi-tasking, time-pressed, driven-to-distraction consumers requires nothing if not brevity and clarity. Effective marketing necessitates well-chosen language. And yet a great many clients still ask for the “kitchen-sink concept.” They seem to believe that appealing to a broad audience means explicitly stating everything you can think of about the brand’s upside. It’s very tempting, but according to experts, this approach always tests poorly with consumers; they get confused and don’t take away anything at all.

Companies like P&G practically mandate that communication strategies have one idea that gets played out across all touch points to reinforce the main reason consumers should or will want to buy the product (they do a lot of testing to get there). Mega brand Tide launched Pods to great fanfare with a functional description on pack: “detergent + stain remover + brightener.” It’s an example of the 3-in-1 approach delivered in the context of a single-minded focus. Likewise, lucky number 7 appears across categories in P&G products, including newer products like Pantene Age Defy, which “fights the 7 signs,” and Total Effects, which was one of the first brands to kick off the multiple benefit idea with 7-in-1 anti-aging. A third P&G brand, Crest, relies on a modified approach: The new Sensi-Stop Strips have a simplified set of claims and benefits: 1 strip, 10 minutes, up to 1 month of protection. Lastly, Cover Girl, a P&G color cosmetic brand, launched Lip Perfection lip color a couple of years ago with the marketing line “softer lips in 7 days.” To this day, Cover Girl continues to use the copy “create soft, smooth, beautiful lips in just 7 days” (there’s that 7 again). Imagine how easy it is to use this communication message across all touch points.

What you see in the examples above is what I call “choicefulness,” applied at the brand level. But choicefulness also lives at a deeper level – in the brand’s DNA. While it is possible to be single-minded and still have broad appeal, this does not mean the brand should, in its earliest stages of development, be designed for the masses. Who hasn’t heard a marketing executive say “Well, we want to appeal to everyone.” We know. But how you get there is a different consideration. The Apple iPod, Starbucks and Target brands were not designed with everyone in mind. Eventually the crowds came, but at the beginning, more than likely each brand had an “aspirational design target” – a hypothetical composite person – in mind for the design. It makes sense that industry insiders believe that Apple engineers designed their products for themselves. It’s impossible to imagine that “Joe the Plumber” could have inspired Apple, high-end coffee or Target’s accessible high-end design idea. But what these brands did embrace was the principle of choicefulness – conveying multiple benefits without sacrificing the clarity of a single, overarching idea.

There are many reasons why corporate and individual brands don’t automatically apply the principle of choicefulness. First, it’s counterintuitive and paradoxical to believe successfully appealing to a broad market means designing for a non-majority. Second, it feels too simplistic, warranting defensive cries of “but we’re a large complex business/brand/offering.” In reality, neither complexity nor size actually matters. Just look at GE (“imagination at work”) and IBM (“smarter planet”). Another perceived barrier: that being choiceful will somehow “limit our future options.” And yet consumers don’t miss a beat when brands modify themselves over time. Amazon used to describe itself as “a retail bookseller that provides instant access to over 1.1 million books.” Today, Amazon “seeks to be Earth’s most customer-centric company.” This is definitive, memorable and clear.

If you are not choiceful in your strategy and design, you’ll have difficulty aligning on a whole host of branding tactics: including naming, messaging and design, to name a few. And it will be much more difficult to have a unique and ownable point of view across all touch points. But it certainly doesn’t have to be that way.

Sandra Creamer is VP, Strategy Director, at brand agency CBX. She can be contacted at:

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                                                                   November 2014