Speaking with one voice

(Author’s note: This entry originally written for David Cameron’s On Brands blog. See http://onbrands.wordpress.com/)

In branding, freedom of speech is unconstitutional.  Every time I make that statement, somebody cringes, but it’s true.

In order to build a focused brand image, you have to associate your brand with an expectation, usually tied to a single attribute that will help customers, prospects, suppliers, employees-to-be and any other important audience understand why they should do business with you.  And because of that, you can’t have divisional marcom people emphasizing things that might create different expectations.

This is not as restrictive as it sounds, because by definition the overall brand expectation has to be fairly broad.  When Kathy Button Bell took over the branding program for St. Louis-based Emerson, she found sixty-six autonomous divisions doing their own thing.  Rather than tell them what they couldn’t say, Bell and her branding team came up with a slogan, “Emerson, consider it solved,” and an overall campaign aimed at turning Emerson into a company of problem-solving zealots.

No matter what kind of widgets they’re selling, those widgets still have to solve problems or customers wouldn’t buy them.  So now, roughly eight years after the “consider it solved” program was launched, Emerson is perceived as an organization of cross-functional teams selling integrated solutions.  And sales to their largest “marquee” accounts have gone way up.

Same thing with General Electric.  When Jeff Immelt took the baton from the legendary Jack Welch in 2002, he saw an image shift was in order.  Immelt correctly perceived that future sales gains needed to come from internally generated technology, and unfortunately, GE wasn’t being given much credit for innovation.

So out went “We bring good things to life,” and in came “Imagination at work.”  I think the program’s working because major magazines like FORTUNE are now ranking GE at the top of their list of world’s most innovative companies.  It’s just a matter of emphasis.

Caterpillar took control of its brand image in the mid-90s with a program actually called One Voice.  Again, they avoided the punitive aspects of telling people what not to say, and simply focused on creating an accurate picture of what Caterpillar is: a manufacturer of rugged, reliable construction equipment.  Today, I think Caterpillar is the strongest example of a focused b-to-b brand you can find.

In each of these cases, divisional marcom managers are free to promote product or service related messages, but they do it under an umbrella that supports the overall brand expectation.  Every GE product or service ad has some aspect of innovation in it.  Emerson ads show how products solve problems.  Caterpillar ads are always strong and manly (never delicate).

So I guess “freedom of speech” is relative.  What I’m really saying is stay in character.  Say what you want as long as you’re consistent with the brand personality and overall expectation you want people to have when they see or hear your name.  That’s how brand power is created.

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