The challenge of aligning a brand always works across many levels - from the finest detail of product offering to the broadest cultural trends. And the techniques needed differ.
Desirable product attributes can be researched and tested. Keeping in tune with slowly evolving attitudes is much harder. Cultural trends can't be neatly pinpointed, categorised or measured. But they're nevertheless real. Get out of sync and your brand quickly seems out of date or out of touch.
Which brand is the more successful: he who shouts loudest or she who builds successful and meaningful relationships? Traditionally, brands were very 'male' in their approach to marketing. They were authoritative, rational, and transaction focused. Today, marketers are much more drawn to themes such as friendly, empathic and relationship.
Take a look at the car industry, Audi has successfully positioned itself as providing advanced technology and progressive design but unlike some brands it doesn't shout how much you earn rather it alludes to your spending power in a subtle, sophisticated manner. Banks were always masters of remote authority. Their message: we, not you, are in command. Today, they are desperate to put this legacy behind them. ABSA for example has worked extremely hard at building an emotional affinity for its brand. Not only has ABSA built a better emotional promise, it has been rigorous in its internal change and brand alignment programmes to drive employee behaviour that delivers.
Or consider the way soap powders are changing their stance. Back in the good old days product assertion was the name of the game: 'we wash whiter!' But now empathy has moved centre stage, as Unilever brand Skip looks at dirt from the child's point of view of play. The TV commercial showing a young boy and his dog playing in the hanging laundry conveys the new stance: 'confident children will play and get dirty', it tells moms. 'You understand your child and we help you deal with the side-effects'.
Another ongoing trend: a shift away from 'go-it-alone' brand strategies to an acceptance of the notion of partnership and collaboration. Of course it makes commercial sense for complementary brands to work together, but a few decades ago neither brand managers nor audiences would have been as open to the idea as they are now. And what is the notion of viral marketing but the traditionally feminine pastime of chat and storytelling, applied to spreading a brand's message?
The next thing? One candidate is constant reinvention. Does consistency always have to mean uniformity? If Madonna can continually reinvent herself and still be herself - if reinvention is part of her identity - why can't brands do the same?
But 'feminisation' is just one way brands have absorbed the zeitgeist of a changing culture. Any hint of racism in a brand's communications is beyond the pale now. Things that were acceptable even a decade ago aren't acceptable any more. Increasingly, it seems, brands need to develop a democratic rather than autocratic aura: target audiences are asked to 'join' more and 'follow' less. The language of empowerment is spreading.
Meanwhile brands' subtle connection with personal identity continues to evolve, especially amidst the crossfire of increased assertion of local identity and the forces of globalisation. For brands like Coca-Cola and McDonald's this is a real issue. Do they represent the forces of global Americanisation? If not, what do they stand for?
It's a rare brand that addresses broad cultural trends and related 'big issues' directly. Rather, brand managers need to be sensitive to subtle but important changes in ambience. For the most part, the brand's response needs to be implicit rather than explicit. And those who fail to respond risk finding themselves on the wrong planet.