Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., an advertising agency that specializes in working with stalled, stuck and stale brands. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”
The necessity of consistency
At the risk of triggering an unpleasant high school flashback, here’s a pop quiz. Take two minutes and see if you can conjure up the current slogans of the following 10 brands (no Googling allowed):
- Louis Vuitton
How’d you do? The answers are at the bottom of this article, but if you’re like most people you probably already know you failed. Badly. Unlike in 11th grade, however, flunking this quiz is perfectly OK. In fact, if you knew more than a handful of these brands’ slogans you’re watching too much TV.
Whenever we conduct this exercise with clients, most get only one or two correct, and many none at all. The point? These are 10 of the biggest advertising spenders in the world and we don’t know their slogans. That’s their problem, not ours, but it’s also instructive. It never ceases to amaze me how the principles of branding mirror the principles of human engagement.
In advertising as in life, what you say isn’t as important as what you do. As "Power Branding" Principle No. 32 puts it, “A slogan is the ribbon around the package, not the prize inside.”
While we may be unfamiliar with these brands’ taglines, we’re well-aware of the brands themselves and have a good sense of where they stand, for good or ill. Their actions communicate more than their advertising.
Beyond that, trust takes time to develop. A generation ago, “A diamond is forever,” “Just do it,” “We try harder,” “Where’s the beef?” and “We bring good things to life” had room to take root for DeBeers, Nike, Avis, Wendy’s and GE.
Today, we live in an instant infotainment environment in which we’ve all been burned by fake news and false promises. Good reputations are difficult to develop and, given the fact that now everyone’s a publisher, even harder to maintain.
Together, these dynamics underscore the importance of consistency. Whether you’re building a reputation for your brand, your company, or your career, a snappy turn of phrase won’t cut it. It’s important that you be “true” not only from top to bottom but over the course of time. No company, no brand, and no leader is infallible, but unless your focus is on what Eugene Peterson called “a long obedience in the same direction” you’re likely to trip yourself up.
Consistency is as essential as it is unexciting, and the lack of it is a hallmark of struggling organizations. One of the reasons slogans perform poorly in advertising-awareness testing is that brands tend to change their campaigns long before they’re fully exposed to the marketplace. And, in our research among Inc. 500 companies, we found that frequent campaign changeovers correlated highly with stalled growth.
It may be redundant but it bears repeating: When you start over, you’re starting over. Whether it’s the result of boredom, turnover in the C-suite, or any one of a dozen other reasons, changing for change’s sake is often ill-advised, not to mention expensive. Hypocrisy is even worse.
Legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow once said, “Our major obligation is not to mistake slogans for solutions.” That statement is truer than ever. Taglines come and go, but an honest brand (or leader) must stand the test of time. People pay far less attention to what you say than what you do.