Brand management has changed significantly from its conception in 1931: when Neil McElroy published his now famous three-page memo outlining why Proctor & Gamble should switch to a brand-based management system.
This entailed a core team of “brand men” focusing entirely on growing their brand to the No. 1 position in its category (even if that meant competing with other household brands). This focus required marketers to treat each brand as a business. Everything — from market orientation to diagnosing perception to producing ads – had to be aligned to deliver lasting distinctiveness and growth. It worked.
Since that famous memo, the advertising industry has seen similar iterations of the idea that all focus on the same theme: how and why marketers can align their brand memorably and repetitively with consumer needs. Not all have been as successful or useful. While McElroy’s brand management memo balanced centralized oversight with decentralized decision-making, other iterations have been somewhat damaging to marketing effectiveness (i.e., Rosser Reeves’s USP and Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle).
Helpful or harmful, the prevalence of theories like these points to a universal need in marketing: brand alignment, which has two key elements:
From McElroy’s memo, one truism remains: aligning a brand around a common identity and direction internally and externally will facilitate great marketing. Brand alignment is more important now than ever before, precisely because of how brand management has changed since 1931.
In reality, brands are risk-mitigating devices. They let consumers know what to expect every time they buy that brand. They’re heuristics. Speaking on this phenomenon, the great American painter, Andy Warhol wrote in his autobiography, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again:
“You can be watching TV and see Coca Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca Cola, too. A coke is a coke and no amount of money can get you a better coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the cokes are the same and all the cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”
As Warhol illustrates, Coca-Cola is successful because it maintains best-in-class brand alignment: that red logo represents a universal, unchanging experience that consumers will have whenever they want it.
But just as highly consistent brands can maintain a competitive edge, the opposite is true. For example, in 1985, after 200,000 taste tests, Coca-cola reformulated its soda as “New Coke” to regain market share in the cola wars. The public, precisely because of Coke’s highly-successful former brand alignment, reacted so negatively that the company famously reintroduced the original formula (dubbing it “Coca-Cola Classic”) only three months later.
Speaking about “one of the most memorable marketing blunders,” a Verizon blog notes that “Customers are motivated by more than just taste.” In fact, “the most grievous error Coca-Cola’s researchers made was testing subjects on taste alone. Most people loved New Coke–53 percent preferred it over old Coke–but the taste isn’t enough. Consumers make purchasing decisions based on habit, nostalgia, and loyalty.”
Another example is the iconic Tropicana orange juice box. It has an orange with a straw sticking straight out of it. It’s simple, evocative, eye-catching, and memorable. It’s representative of effective brand alignment: from marketing to testing to sales to shelves, Tropicana stands for fresh—like it’s come straight from the orange.
But in 2008, Tropicana tried to rebrand their product with an all-new “modernized” look. They lost $30 million in sales.
Branding, brand alignment, and brand consistency are more powerful and critical than ever because we now live in an era defined by proliferation. Writing about the making, role, and importance of brands, Morgan Housel, VC at Collaborative Fund, makes this clear:
“Branding is more powerful than ever today because consumer options have proliferated. There used to be three news channels. Now there are millions of blogs. The grocery store used to stock five types of toothpaste. Now Amazon offers 87,268.”
If marketers want their brand of toothpaste to stand out from a field of 87,268, it's critical to ensure their brand is aligned across verticals and matches their customers’ expectations. Consumer choice is not the only thing that is proliferating, either.
Advertising continues to unbundle, causing marketers to reconsider advertising profitability levers like budget-setting, multimedia, and brand vs. performance – all within the context of an unprecedented number of media choices. One of the consequences of this unbundling is content proliferation. But, two decades of measurement bias means marketers overestimate the impact of these levers above while underestimating more potent profitability levers like creative quality.
This proliferation can be costly for business profitability – be it greater competition, clutter, or inefficient brand portfolios. Brands play an indispensable role in business, and their growing value is reflected in rising market capitalizations. For example, the world’s largest advertiser, Amazon, has seen – according to Brand Finance – an “astronomical 4527% brand value increase from $5 billion in 2007 to $254 billion this year.” A considerable change coming from a company whose founder, Jeff Bezos, once said in 2009, “advertising is the price you pay for unremarkable thinking.”
Even the most valuable brands can suffer from a lack of alignment and direction. Particularly as they expand globally and produce more creative content than ever before.
With “over 99 billion served,” McDonald’s hardly needs to raise brand awareness for sales. But, mainly because they are so ubiquitous, the McDonald’s brand became “a little meaningless” to consumers, according to their own CMO, Morgan Flatley.
McDonald’s overcame this position as “cultural wallpaper” through a clever marketing strategy that helped deliver better brand alignment: everyone eats McDonald’s, and everyone has their own specific McDonald’s order. Partnering with celebrities worldwide to produce their “Famous Order” campaign allowed McDonald’s to transform their monolithic presence from “cultural wallpaper” to culturally relevant, regardless of the market. The campaign delivered millions of dollars of incremental sales and an ROI that fluctuated throughout the campaign from 2.49:1 to 9.16:1, driving growth for the entire brand and forming the basis of their creative excellence strategy.
Today, marketing accounts for 10-35% of a brand’s equity—and intangible assets now make up 90% of a business’s market capitalization. In a world of greater (and riskier) consumer choice and marketing choice, brand alignment is the best way to make all of these assets work together to deliver consistent, impactful work that ultimately drives mental availability.
Brand alignment is essential, but how can marketers pull it off today? Elon Musk taught Dharmesh Shah (founder and CTO of HubSpot) a valuable lesson about growing a business: “every person in your company is a vector. Your progress is determined by the sum of all vectors.” What Musk calls “vectors” are what brand alignment is all about.
A vector is a quantity having both magnitude and direction. Imagine people working on a brand or in an organization as a vector. Aligning them all to work in the same direction at the same speed is the literal translation of the mathematical process of adding vectors together.
Brand alignment is the process of aligning these vectors: It’s about getting teams aligned around the delivery of the strategy and getting the organization aligned around the customer needs. In summarizing, Shah writes, “If you have perfect people and they're perfectly misaligned, the result is zero progress.”
The industry has progressed, and brands have become significantly more valuable since McElroy released his memo. The three interconnected elements that helped make the memo a success when McElroy first wrote it are far harder to achieve today because brands now operate in more markets, with more agency partners and more brand managers than ever – and all of these parties produce a lot more content than ever before.
While the industry has undoubtedly undergone massive changes since McElroy released his memo, it stands the test of time as one of the greatest demonstrations of brand alignment in marketing history—and, by learning from it, we can learn how to approach brand alignment today.
McElroy’s memo was successful because it did three things:
These three elements are key to brand alignment. By aligning teams and output around an organizational or business goal based on customer needs, it becomes possible to keep brands fresh, relevant, and distinctive.
“Printed word copy” today means imagery and video content. Writing for WARC, CreativeX founder and CEO Anastasia Leng made this clear: “A vast 84% of marketing content is visual, yet it's the least understood and analyzed element of the marketing mix.”
Measurement and analysis are the final puzzle pieces that make brand alignment possible today, despite all the difficulties of proliferation and competition. Today’s top companies, like Mondelēz, produce millions of creative materials, testing and learning across hundreds of channels to deliver efficiencies and grow their brands. Accountability for how consumers see brands is in a state of flux, and improving it – especially at scale – makes brand alignment feasible and enables great marketing.
In the past ten years, significant advances in computer vision and machine learning have enabled marketers to analyze their creatives at scale. This technology can identify, tag, and create structured data for elements present in a creative—e.g., human present, product present, brand mentioned in audio, etc. This technology is ideally suited to solving alignment problems in an era of proliferation.
Leng writes, “Unbeknownst to us, marketers are sitting on a huge untapped asset: creative data. Behind every image and video are thousands of data points that can now, thanks to advancements in computer vision, be harnessed and clustered to not only measure the creative decisions we’ve made across all of our content but to combine that data with performance data to understand how those decisions have driven impact.”
Many of the world’s most effective advertisers currently use this technology to solve some of these brand alignment problems at scale.
In the past three years the most effective advertisers are leveraging creative data, a new insights source to help them de-risk, scale, and learn from their creative decisions. In doing so, their marketers can identify the creative elements that map to creative effectiveness (measured by sales, profit, brand lift, and more).
To scale these creative learnings, they built universal best practices for their creative production, containing platform best practices and guidelines unique to their brands. These guidelines help global marketing teams coordinate 1,000s of marketers across agencies, internal teams, and 100+ markets to produce content that delivers on its marketing goals–without restricting the creative process.
Lesson 1: Transform creative decisions from subjective to objective
Historically, judgments about whether creative work is “good” or “bad” often come down to the most senior person in the room. Heineken used Creative Quality data to create a better system. They leveraged data to check their marketers’ biases and align their marketing with their customer’s needs, effectively closing the empathy gap between their internal team and their consumers to deliver more relevant and effective creative work.
Heineken’s experiments with creative data were so successful because they leverage the data both before and during their creative campaigns, using it to inform the initial planning and then to tweak and guide scaling and development. This usage provided, in the words of Heineken's Sander Bosch, "an impartial machine that looks at performance related to business impact, and that introduces some sort of objectivity."
Lesson 2: Correlate actions to measurable business impact
As a 150-year-old company operating more than 300 brands in more than 190 markets, one of the biggest challenges Heineken’s marketing team faced was finding a consistent way to track the actual performance of their initiatives as they related to the bottom line.
Heineken discovered 15 creative elements that drove creative effectiveness for their brands. To promote adoption and accountability at scale, they reduced this to four key creative elements and mandated them across their entire organization. These four creative elements delivered a 50% lift to brand value on Meta platforms. They took it a step further, by mandating that any creative without these elements would not be allowed into their DAM. As Bram Reukers, Global Smart Creative Lead at Heineken, noted, “the key reason why we were able to get the buy-in from senior stakeholders to fully roll it [the new campaigns created with the help of creative data] out was the big shift from looking at media KPIs, to see how something is performing to actually being able to correlate it to business impact. Of course, that gets to the ears of senior management.”
Discussing this achievement, Reukers said: “We can proudly share that, thanks to the four key drivers, as they’ve been qualified within the CreativeX platform, the excellence rate went up by 50% … So, knowing that these four drivers also are key drivers for business impact, I would almost leave it to the audience also to kind of calculate what that means for their business. But yes, it’s had a big impact on our end.”
Lesson 3: Find what works and ruthlessly prioritize it
After Heineken ran their large-scale analysis of brands with CreativeX’s technology, they identified what Bosch called “a limited set of four key hygiene factors” that successful campaigns needed to have in place. “These are non-negotiable,” he explained, “and we have to have all of them in place in all of the assets we put online.
With the evidence that creative data provided and the backing of the senior management, Reukers adjusted all digital creative to prioritize: “We call them the fundamentals, and they drive the biggest impact,” he explained. “It’s key to ensure we leverage those four, and then build on them to further ensure we drive effectiveness.”
Lesson 4: Focus on a single objective
Nestlé focused on and enhanced the effectiveness of its first forays into using creative data for brand alignment in a very similar way to Heineken. Where Heineken used the data to focus on four key elements of success, Nestlé used their data to locate and home in on a single goal.
Global CMO of Nestlé Aude Gandon utilized creative data to, in her words, “put the light on the importance of really being digital-first, with a very clear guidebook and roadmap for all the teams on understanding: how do you develop creative for digital-first and audience-based marketing?”
Answering this question by writing the guidebook became a way to “rally the whole global marketing organization behind one goal. We needed to have a very clear, very simple action to get the whole organization working behind you, and CreativeX was definitely a great one for me.”
Discussing the impact of this global rollout, Nestlé’s Global CMO, Aude Gandon, said, “We just got data from the Meta platforms showing that the initial ads [created with feedback from creative data] actually have a higher Creative Hygiene [Quality] Score,” and “achieved 66% higher ROAS.”
Lesson 5: Embed the process into a creative effectiveness ecosystem
Mondelēz owns more than 70 brands worldwide. They outsource many marketing elements to creative agency partners to manage these brands effectively. The trouble was that using different agencies produced creative of different quality.
Mondelēz knew they needed to adopt universal brand quality best practices to control creative quality effectively. Global Digital Senior Manager Laetitia Lacour used creative data to help her do that, partnering with CreativeX to isolate nine data-proven creative guidelines for brand success, which she disseminates to all partners. “It’s very important for us that our creative agency partners use CreativeX,” she explained. “It’s fully embedded in our creative effectiveness ecosystem. It enables them to fix the basics.”
Lesson 6: Map global and local expertise to long and short-term strategies
In an op-ed called “The Long and the Short of It maps exactly onto the challenges of global marketing,” Mark Ritson shared three essential pieces of advice on coordinating brand alignment between local and global marketing teams. They were:
Ritson also shared a final, no-nonsense guideline for brand alignment: “Allow the global teams to take the 60% and spend it on multiyear, emotional, mass brand building. And let’s spread the remaining 40% of the budget across the country [local] teams.”
Brand alignment is essential. The data and stories demonstrate why, and brands are already pulling it off. That leaves the million-dollar question: how do marketers start making it happen right now? More specifically, how can they coordinate the brand alignment required for global consistency and scaling while continuing to deliver market-specific campaigns in the short term?
It’s the CMO’s job to create an organizational structure with the right people, partners, and technology to align the brand across departments and according to audience needs. Only new technology can solve the problems caused by technology—issues like proliferation and the great unbundling of advertising—but technology alone won’t be enough. It will also take skilled marketers to use this technology to navigate and deliver the Long and the Short of It while meeting global and local needs.
How can CMOs do that? Professor Byron Sharp shares some advice in an episode of Black T-shirts XXL Creativity for Marketers: "Stop trying to do the job before you were a CMO, which was building and running campaigns, and understand that your current job as a CMO is in transformation. You've got to build marketing muscle within your organization and make your whole organization, not just the marketing department, better at marketing. In the long run, winning organizations are all better at marketing, not campaigns."
Creative data is the foundational asset in helping make this transformation successful. With advertising unbundling and content proliferating at rising speeds, achieving brand alignment at the scale brands now operate is nearly impossible without creative data.
This is a multi-part, weekly series exploring — through data — how marketers can deliver brand consistency and some common pitfalls to watch out for.
Part one spotlights data on the value of brand consistency, part two explores the science of brand consistency, part three explores the value of Distinctive Brand Assets, part four unpacks how to develop brand consistency, part five highlights why brands are adopting Creative Quality, part six looks at brand alignment, part seven breaks down the importance of scale, part eight reveals how brands are managing scaling challenges, part nine looks at how brands are scaling their marketing efforts.
The next article in this brand consistency series explores how creative data can help brands looking to scale marketing efforts. Read it here to explore a framework to overcome these challenges and grow brand consistency.