Coherence is more important than consistency

clone troopers.jpg

Is it time to stop cloning our communications? Image courtesy of Official Star Wars Blog

One of the things that I always bang on about without really thinking about it in depth is the idea that Clients and agencies need to place less emphasis on consistency and more on coherence.

So I thought I’d worry this one out a bit.

Consistency was the marketing mantra of the ‘90s. Both Clients and their brand advisers would regularly look at the entire creative output from the brand and demand that it be more consistent.
By which they usually meant that it should look the same either in its entirety or certainly within individual campaigns. Direct usually got it in the neck for not looking like it came from the same company as the above the line work, and this heralded the growth in brand literate DM agencies in the early part of the decade.
The philosophy was built around the idea that budgets could be better optimised if all the creative output looked like, in the words of that ghastly cliché so popular at the time, ‘it sang from the same hymn sheet’.
This approach reached its zenith with identity rich communications from brands like O2 in the UK, which delivered religiously consistent work at all customer touch points.
It also manifested itself in geographical consistency, where the same work for a brand was run across all territories. Coke was big into this in the early nineties before embracing a more open approach to creativity. This may well have started out as a way from exercising control over local markets and delivering some production economies but made greater sense as the internationalisation of both consumers and media started to match that of the brands.
Consistency was everything.
The trouble was an emphasis on executional consistency rarely derived from a clear and coherent strategy for the brand. Either consistency was driven out of an advertising campaign devised for specific media or out of an identity that had little to say beyond superficial aesthetic appeal. Surely if it all looks the same and uses the same endline it means the same.
Maybe we are now witnessing a counter trend. One where Clients and agencies are less bothered about executional consistency as long as the brand’s point of view is coherent across media, between campaigns and around the world. Hell the endline doesn’t even need to be the same if it still delivers the idea at the heart of the brand.
Of course this requires the brand to have a coherent point of view in the first place and rather points up those that have a nice endline but no role to play in peoples lives.
I think we can see this approach happening on Dove with the campaign for real beauty. Here we see an astonishingly coherent brand idea being delivered in all sorts of ways to the delight of the audience. The richness of different media and the subtleties of different cultures are easily accommodated because of supreme confidence in the brand idea.
The added bonus of this shift in priorities has been the improvement in inter-agency relationships and collaboration. Individual shops are far less likely to be asked to copy the work of another agency and more likely to be given the core idea and asked to do the best possible work in their medium or their market. The lead agency is still the one that devised the idea but that position is less likely to be used to stifle the role of others. Who is the lead agency on Dove? Well its not entirely clear form the outside and just for now Ogilvy in Toronto is making the most celebrated work.
There is a view (actually I stole this from Dr Joe Plummer and have manipulated it to suit my own ends) that coherence is the name of the game now because audiences are no longer congregated by media so that the same group of people are drawn together at the same time and place to witness the same content on the same platform. In a world of congregation everybody is seeing everything so it makes some sense to make it all look the same. But if audiences are increasingly aggregated from different groups of people witnessing different content from the brand at different times and on different platforms then executional consistency becomes both less possible and less desirable
Against that backdrop it is rather sad to see Bravia doggedly pursuing an extremely unedifying approach to their work seemingly built entirely on consistency rather than coherence. So while moving image advertising uses all the power of that medium to deliver colour like no other, none of the other media are allowed to do this. Instead they must parrot the TV work to the point where they cease to be ads for Bravia and become little more than ads for the ads. I’m sure there is a bloody good reason for this but as far as I am concerned ‘build awareness of the advertising’ is rarely a legitimate communications objective.
I think that’s what this consistency versus coherence thing is all about anyway, but as ever maybe its something you would help me build upon.

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11 Replies to “Coherence is more important than consistency”

  1. the Bravia example is really good because whenever I drove past the original 48 sheets for ‘balls’, I just kept thinking about the missed opportunity. Instead of just showing pictures of balls around a TV, why not have used that space to communicate the power of colour according to Bravia?
    But this will be driven by budgets to a certain degree as there is the element of cost efficiencies from recycling the same creative across multiple platforms Vs bespoke creative for bespoke ‘conversations’.

  2. Thanks for your interesting and thought provoking post.
    You make a good point. I think the image of stormtroopers is loaded with another layer of meaning. Whether consciously or unconsciously expressed, marketing’s dirty little secret has long been an admiration for fascist spectacle. He may have been a failed artist but the identity Hitler created for the Nazi party and the consistency with which he applied it throughout that terrible period of history is the seminal model for 20th Century branding – a form of totalitarianism. Everyone and everything had to comply.
    In addition to your remarks I suggest that it will subside for a couple of reasons (and I am speculating, rather than basing my thoughts on anything empirical):
    1. Media can be discretely directed to communication with myriad niches of individuals. Mass television advertising with its enormous efficiency – drag netting for an audience – and correspondent waste – catching un-targeted species – may well become a thing of the past. A corollary to this will be the pulling of media towards us instead of having it inflicted upon us. We will choose the kind of message we prefer, possibly even assembling the message that suits ourselves from components created by the brand.
    2. Products will have inherent attributes and we will make our own meanings from them. Developing single minded propositions (which, when you think about it, is an idea intented to leverage the efficiency of the mass media message. I don’t know what a 30 second commercial in the UK costs in mainstream channels at prime time but my guess it is somewhere between an arm and a leg. It didn’t take long to stretch a budget so each message had to combat clutter by having one single ‘take-out’). In the era of YouTube and the coming era of the mobile AV device those economics will subside and the proverbial long tail will produce communications that, when observed in toto will seem more like a provincial city in India than Albert Speer’s grandiose, singular vision of Berlin (or Canberra, Australia)…functional chaos.
    That might seem terrifying to many in the world of brands and their design/communication but it does pay to remember that the orthodoxy of modernism with all of its angular rigor arose at about the same time as fascism (i.e. we all do the same thing, the same way as dictated).
    It may be time to move on. Power and control are illusions.
    As a footnote, I remember reading a remark (I think by Bill Bernbach) that sometimes it was better not to flag your identity. The efficiency of shorthand branding methods can be such that a person cannot be persuaded if, at first glance they identify who you are. A single bad experience, misunderstanding, decision to ignore or simply indifference towards your brand by a consumer might mean that even catching your ID in any form results in immediate rejection. Of course he was more succinct – sometimes it pays not to put your logo on your ad.

  3. This is a really interesting and quite precarious question when you get to it. Simply because all of us ad agency folks actually were the primary advocates for the matching luggage thinking for quite some years because that way we could justify bigger budgets on a few key visuals and TVCs since they were going to be used all the way ´round. And now when our traditional business model is severely defunct because we cannot make the same money from just a few print and TV executions, we are like politicians making the 180 degree turn-around :-)
    It does make sense, however, that the media and target group fragmentation could be the argument for leaving the consistency path.
    But there is also another point, namely that brand activation is becoming increasingly important as advertising is moving towards being more and more tactical in nature.
    And to truly activate your brand, you really do need to make your brand proposition become more engaging as you move your overall brand idea down through the sales funnel. If you just replicate your overall message with a call-to-action mechanism in non-TV media, then the whole argument for having matching luggage becomes contradictory: if indeed it is the same people that will see the campaign in different media, why would you expect this group to pay extra attention to your message if it looks the same and basically says the same?
    You could argue that the extra top-of-mind effect would provide the campaign with greater impact – and that more awareness in itself will convert more people to take action.
    That might be so for some categories – but it is also a costly model and I would think that most marketers would still prefer to get a bigger bang for the buck meaning getting more out every execution and placement than merely the benefits of duplication. And getting more out of the execution means that you need a richer content or pathway to a richer content that allows the consumers to actually tell exactly what makes you the best offer in town. And as the need for differentiating content increases, it would seem rather obvious that so does the need for differentation in how we use the different media.
    That being said – I think it does represent a major challenge to get this consistency thing out of the way. I have had many discussions with clients about this – and it is very tough to make them stand down on especially visual consistency when you have been telling them that this was the holy grail for the past decades.
    And regarding Dove: it is true that the different film executions wehther it be for TV or the internet is not bound by a common visual framework. However, I have seen many DOVE press and poster, direct and online efforts that are – and that really doesn´t expand on the overall brand idea.
    Missed opportunities or reinforcement of campaign? Or do we actually need both the matching luggage and the expansions in some kind of prioritized combination depending on the campaign purpose and objectives? Personally, I have come to believe the latter – admittedly, it doesn’t make for a very good sell because either-or usually has more swing to it…

  4. Brilliant post.
    I think its certainly true that consistancy in what the brand stands for is now more important than visual or message consistency.
    People are smart enough to understand two messages can apply to one thing!

  5. This all reminds me of medieval arguments about the Trinity: three in one and one in three, the same and yet different, different and yet the same. The search for the right balance of coherence/ consistency, to create campaigns not just ads, to create brands not just campaigns is the central Mystery of planning. There can be no answer as such, though I think someone should draft some guidelines for us to argue about. I also think we should pay tribute to the Bearded One, at Virgin for a brand which is so different in different markets and yet somehow the same.

  6. Fascinating stuff as usual. I really like this idea of the strong “point of view.’ I suspect it also has a global (universal) appeal — something akin to Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces.” The same story told in various ways; in different countries and in different periods of history. Good stuff!

  7. Great stuff.
    Confusing control with order is something a lot of brands do.
    A popular view of IMC for instance, is that messages should be harmonised so that audiences perceive consistent meanings. This is at odds however with what academics in fields of popular culture and postmodernism ascertain about self-productive consumers. Consumers modify elements of cultural texts supplied by brands, suggesting that in transforming cultural commodity into resource, consumers pluralize meaning marketers offer, which highlights that coherence is often more important than consistency.

  8. Someone told me to check out this site. Glad I did.
    Two things:
    1) Why emblazon the blog with Ad Age’s ranking of 85th? Is that a joke of yours? Looking through this, I would place this site among the one or two best marketing/communications blogs. Why don’t you start ranking Ad Age? Say as the 37th best trade journal? Or lower?
    2) Despite all the fine comments above on this specific question, coherence and consistency don’t seem to be in contraposition so why would they be put against one another? An old Islamic philosopher (maybe Avicenna, possible Averroes) wrote a book called The Incoherence of Incoherence, an 11th or 10th Century preview of Within The Context of No Context by George Trow of the New Yorker on modern media. The Islamic book was in response to a whacko philosopher’s (Ali Golly or something like that) treatise called The Incoherence of Philosophy. Both were consistent, but both are entirely forgotten except for moments like this.

  9. I agree with your points. And i think that if you are a big, established brand then coherence is something worth focusing on (for the points you give).
    But if you are an emerging brand, surely it would be right to look at both options. Coherence would be the right option if you as the client believe that the agency had a variety of great creative ideas. But if not, then consistency might be a safer option as a way of introducing yourself (and consolidating your presence) in the market. And then in the next phase to focus on coherence over consistency.
    I am not convinced that we have to lose consistency to the degree you appear to suggest.

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