Monday Mornings with Madison

When a Company’s Brand Sends Mixed Signals – Part 2

Eliminating Mixed Messages with the Three Cs

In many ways, the brand is the Achilles heel of the corporate world.  As companies shift more and more to being all about brand meaning and brand image, the more vulnerable they are to attacks on image.  That is why it is increasingly critical for companies to protect every aspect of their brand, and work hard to avoid having any mixed messages about the company’s purpose and position.   That includes guiding – as much as is possible or practical – what the company’s own people say about the company.  This is a challenge for even the most successful businesses.

In fact, last week, LinkedIn’s CMO Network — the #1 Group for Chief Marketing Officers — posted this question for discussion by some of the top marketing minds in the world:  “We are so sensitive about the language in our marketing campaigns and websites.  How do we ensure our employees use the right words and tone while talking to customers?”   There is an understanding at the highest levels of leadership that all brand cues must align in order to avoid mixed messages.  Marketing cannot be saying one thing while sales is saying something else altogether.  Materials cannot tout one image while leadership makes decisions that communicate the total opposite.  While there are strategies (such as a clear Social Media Policy, scripted telemarketing dialogue, templated sales letters and emails, training sessions and a sales manual) that can help ensure sales efforts align with the company’s position, protecting a company’s brand goes far beyond that.   Whether it’s a company’s marketing strategies, business tactics, or its approach to customer service, a business brand should obey the three Cs: be clear, cohesive and consistent.

C1 – Be Clear

The greatest brands are clear about who they are, what they stand for, and what they do.  A good example of a company whose brand is very clear is Amazon.   Within its name, Amazon’s brand says they sell everything from A to Z, which they do. With millions of products, 24/7 access, superior search and browse technology, user reviews and many other sources of in-depth product information,’s brand aims to offer a superior purchase experience.  Also, Amazon’s low prices and free shipping on orders over a minimum total is seen as offering value, while its one-click ordering and quick-shipping options help shoppers save time.  Amazon understands that as a digital company without brick-n-mortar locations, they must make their customers’ online buying experience transparent and seamless.   Their goals, values, and message align clearly with their execution.

Another great example of brand clarity is Baskin Robbins, the global ice cream chain.  Their logo touts their 31 original flavors of ice cream which showcases their focus on variety.  But Baskin Robbins didn’t start out with a clear brand.  Brothers-in-law Burton “Burt” Baskin and Irvine “Irv” Robbins started with separate shops.  In 1945, Irv opened Snowbird Ice Cream in Glendale, California featuring 21 flavors, high-quality ice cream, and a fun environment. A year later, Burt opened Burton’s Ice Cream Shop in Pasadena, CA. By 1948, they had six stores between them. But it wasn’t until 1953 that the ice cream chain dropped the separate identities of Snowbird and Burton’s and became Baskin-Robbins.

Why?  A local advertising agency rightly advised them that they should have a clear, uniform identity and image under the name Baskin-Robbins 31 Ice Cream. Recommendations included the “31®” logo to represent a flavor for every day of the month and Cherry (pink) and Chocolate (brown) polka dots to be reminiscent of clowns, carnivals and fun. Baskin-Robbins’ iconic pink spoons were created with the belief that people should be able to try any of their many flavors without cost.

Today, Baskin-Robbins is the world’s largest chain of ice cream specialty stores, with more than 2,800 locations in the U.S. and 5,800 around the globe.  Although they’ve introduced more than 1,000 unique ice cream flavors, their original top-selling flavors are still offered worldwide (if for no other reason than brand clarity and continuity). They have innovated and expanded without sacrificing their brand’s clarity.

C2 – Be Consistent

Top brands also strive to ensure that every aspect of their company’s efforts – from sales to marketing and from operations to service — is consistent.  Brands are extremely careful about what is said, who is saying it and how it is being represented in the world.  To do that, it is important for a company to pick just a few messages that can be delivered throughout all brand materials and efforts.  This ensures that when a customer switches from physical to digital shopping, they encounter the same value promise to guide the way. Different ways to engage the brand shouldn’t deliver different experiences.  It is all part of one business.

A key part of being consistent is keeping things simple.  Ideally, the company’s value proposition should be catchy.  Even if the product or service is complex, the messaging and experience should not be complicated.  The message should pack punch but also be easy to remember. The promise should be so consistent that they know who to turn to when they need what the business offers.  Tissues = Kleenex.  Aluminum Foil = Reynolds.  Adhesive bandage = BandAid.   Sunscreen = Coppertone.

Another important part of being consistent is to trust a company’s brand message creation to one person. That doesn’t mean the leadership has no say in the process. Of course, the leadership should give that person direction and maintain veto power.  However, by leaving brand creation to one person, it avoids branding by committee. After long meetings and arguments over what a company’s purpose and value actually is, brand messaging can devolve into nonsensical jargon and buzzwords. Individually, all of those words may have meaning, but together they are often a hot mess.  It is best to let one person do the work of culling, cultivating and carving out the best elements of the brand, and then presenting ideas for consideration.

C3 – Be Cohesive

Last but not least, it is important for all brand efforts, actions and messages to be cohesive.  Cohesiveness, more than clarity and consistency, helps brands to avoid mixed messaging.  Nike is a good example of a company that has overcome brand problems by taking steps to ensure its image was cohesive.

The Nike brand is identified with sportswear, exercise and most of all action.  However, at one point in Nike’s not-so-distant past, the brand became known for something else… worker abuse.  While Nike itself does not actually manufacture any of the goods it sells, since all Nike shoes and clothing are manufactured by affiliated vendors predominantly in Asia, those companies are generally contracted to produce only Nike products.  Although Nike pays an average of $16-17 per pair of shoes made in Vietnam (for example), the company resells them for about $100 per pair simply because it carries the Nike logo.  What has allowed Nike to markup its products 500% is the power of its brand image.  However, in the early 1990s, Nike endured an onslaught of accusations that its vendors were among the worst sweat shops in the world.  (At that time, Vietnam, workers manufacturing Nike products earned an average of .20 US cents per hour, and were subjected regularly to physical punishments.) There was an onslaught of bad publicity which badly tarnished Nike’s image.

By 1998, the damage to Nike’s reputation began to trickle down to the bottom line. Share prices dropped and sales were weak.  Nike’s CEO admitted that Nike had become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime and arbitrary abuse. To counter this Nike poured its marketing expertise into its own corporate reputation and sought to portray a caring company, concerned about working conditions in its contractors’ factories.  Nike hired a former Microsoft exec as VP for corporate and social responsibility, and expanded that division to 70 people.  Nike has since taken a multitude of steps to address the problems related to its vendors.  It also worked hard to align all aspects of its brand.  As a result, Nike’s brand was able to rebound and continues to enjoy a positive brand image.

To avoid the problems that arise from sending out mixed messages, ultimately, a company’s every action, effort, strategy, tactic and message must align.  The look.  The feel.  The message.  The icons.  The value proposition.  The service.  The sales pitch.  It all should all have the same clear, consistent and cohesive meaning…. hit the same bulls-eye. That’s how a company avoids sending mixed signals and protects its brand.

Quote of the Week

“Ensure your employees understand what your brand stands for so they can be your first line of word-of-mouth advertising.” Simon Mainwaring


© 2014, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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