Today’s retail brands have enormous, and continually expanding, marketing ecosystems, making it increasingly harder for them to communicate consistently with their customers. An average consumer now receives thousands of marketing messages a day through online and offline platforms, a figure that reinforces the need to drive such consistency.

“The sheer quantity of communication channels, retail touchpoints, customer data points, routes to market, and even multiple geographies, means that brands themselves, let alone their messages, have become sliced and diced,” McGrath explains.

He says internal disjointedness can present itself in a myriad of different ways to the outside world, whether it’s a discrepancy between service experience online and in-store, inconsistent behaviour and content across channels, or different tones of voice along various touchpoints.

“Brands are experiencing extraordinary pressure to stretch to the point of fracture,” he continues – something which can have disastrous effects on customer experience, customer retention and the bottom line if not resolved.

Why are brands ‘fracturing’?

Of course, the root of the problem, according to McGrath, lies far deeper than marketers simply having to juggle a larger marketing mix in their day-to-day roles. In fact, the overall organisational structure, and culture – while invisible to the customer – can play a huge role in what the customer ends up perceiving when content and campaigns go live.

“CMOs, CTOs, CIOs, CDOs, CXOs are not only trying to run the same brand, they’re often competing for the same budget, or sharing the CEO or CFO’s attention.

“Worse still, is that each of these is surrounded by their different groups of colleague teams or agencies, all of whom offer a different perspective on the brand based on their area of expertise, or (in truth) their personal agenda.”

McGrath believes such internal competition can create silos. With teams not coming together for the sake of the brand, this leads to a lack of clear internal communication and uniformity around both what the brand stands for and how it should present itself across its many channels.

“Languages that are constantly changing dilute and break the meaning of the brand, making it less powerful or influential than it could be.”

The marketeer’s mismatch

Often, brands internalise a warped view of their own messaging and brand experience, creating what McGrath calls ‘the marketeer’s mismatch’.

Citing a number of recent surveys, as well as Wunderman Thompson’s own research on the topic, he says there is “a roughly fifty percent gap between what marketers think about their brand experience, consistency and ease of understanding and navigation, and what customers really think.”

Therefore, time and time again, brands are not meeting the expectations customers set for them and risk losing them to competitors at any point in the customer journey.

“What all this adds up to is a loss of control for marketing. It appears as though marketing is struggling to stay in charge of the brand – probably the single most valuable asset on the balance sheet,” he explains.

A lack of control spells bad news for the future of organisations that are already suffering from fracturing. McGrath stresses that, despite the age-old saying that consumers own brands, marketers should lead customers and take more responsibility for branding in order to regain this control.

“It is clear that this is being realised by more and more people, if the 2020 Gartner CMO survey is anything to go by, where brand strategy is now ranked as the most important business priority at 33%, up from a lowly 16% [only a year before].”

How to identify if your brand is fractured

The first step to taking back ownership of your brand strategy, and rectifying a weakening brand perception, is by identifying if it is fractured in the first place, and if so, where the most major pain points are occurring.

One way of doing this is by using a simple framework that visualises the customer lifecycle and clearly indicates areas of improvement. McGrath introduces Wunderman Thompson’s ‘Living, Buying, Using’ framework, which is split into sections to help analyse how brands operate and how customers engage with them across multiple touchpoints of their journeys:

Living: What does the customer know of the brand as part of their everyday exposure to marketing communications?

Buying: How do customers decide and choose a product from your category? Why do they choose yours?

Using: Following a purchase, how involved are customers in using your product, and how likely will they make another purchase down the line (or continue a relationship with the brand in another way)?

“What we’ve discovered is that brands that are fractured… leak value and demand at every stage. The lack of alignment between living, buying and using, or the confusion of the brand experience is resulting in [customers] opting out for other brands elsewhere,” McGrath says.

Wunderman Thompson's Living Buying Using framework in action with grocery brands

McGrath demonstrates the Living, Buying, Using framework on the messaging of popular grocery brands. Image: Festival of Marketing

Before diving into the framework and applying it to your own brand, however, he suggests considering the following four warning signs to get an initial grasp on whether your brand indeed requires any analysis:

1. You’re too reactive

“You’ve become short-term and tactical, and you’re obsessed about the competition. You’re more interested in what they are doing than what you’re doing. You’ve adopted a test and learn, or agile language, most likely as a smokescreen for not making bold decisions and sticking with them.”

2. You’re receiving more complaints

“The gap between what your brand has promised and its delivery has widened so far [that] your customers are confused and dissatisfied.”

3. Your internal rivalries are resulting in poor brand messages

“Your agenda or incentive clashes with colleagues from other parts of your business and are getting in the way of a unified approach.”

4. You’re losing share, sales and interest from customers

“Customers are probably leaving the journey you’ve created for them because it’s a pain, annoying or simply broken.”

Making fractured brands whole again

Once you’ve identified the fractures in your brand, it’s time to get to work on repairing them and creating an even better brand that’s consistent and integrated in its messaging moving forward. This consistency is key: McGrath cites 2019 research by Lucidpress which reveals that marketers believe if a brand was more uniform in its presentation, revenue would increase by a substantial 33%. He also refers to a 2018 Kantar study which found that integrated brand campaigns were 31% more effective than those that weren’t.

So, how can marketers achieve this?

The answer, he says, is less about the single customer view, and more about a single brand view.

“Is it really okay just to be obsessed about the customer?… What’s the point in understanding the customer and their experience if the brand that we’re wanting them to experience is ill-conceived and fractured?

“It’s vitally important to be as obsessed about the brand as we are about the customer.”

This is much more than just tuning up, or redefining, your overall brand purpose or positioning, he explains. Instead, it encompasses every aspect of the brand that customers can see, from emphasising the brand experience customers can expect, to what seem to be relatively small things like altering your organisation’s slogan.

“As easy as it is to dismiss this… it is likely to be the most famous, easily remembered piece of public-facing messaging that reoccurs throughout the entire experience.”

Consequently, McGrath believes a single brand view brings more control to marketers and becomes a marketing purpose or “experiential truth” that everyone – including internal employees, third party agencies and your customers – can all rally around.

Five simple steps

In summary, he lists a simple set of steps that encompass the entire process for organisations looking to heal from any fracturing they may be experiencing, reassert control over their brand and bounce back stronger:

Step 1 – Identify the brand owner (person or entity)

The brand owner can often be, but isn’t always, the CMO or the marketing team. It could also be an agency that plays a major part in your brand strategy.

“Ideally one person, or one entity, acts as the brand owner to understand, monitor and ensure the correct expression of the brand.”

Step 2 – Audit

McGrath emphasises the importance of taking the time to analyse the difference between how you think your brand is delivering and how your brand is actually perceived and/or experienced by target consumers. You can do this by applying the Living, Buying and Using framework, as well as by collecting customer feedback.

Step 3 – Find your single brand view

“Look at how you want your brand to be understood and experienced by those who are not even in the category yet, by those who are choosing and buying [from your brand] and by those who are using [your brand] where you wish to deepen the relationship.”

Step 4 – Scope out a brand blueprint

A brand blueprint, McGrath explains, is a 1-3 year plan which looks at the current state of your brand, where its major fractures exist and what needs to be done to heal those fractures. This can inform where investment is needed the most, and how to maintain a uniform message that’s also flexible enough to stay relevant long-term.

“Once complete, this brand blueprint becomes a single source of marketing truth – the plan that you give to your agencies, and ideally your colleagues, to both guide and police them.”

Step 5 – Find an integrated agency to help guide you

“Find yourself a genuinely integrated agency that has as much breadth as depth and as much depth as breadth.”