Consistency vs. coherence in branding

“Do I contradict myself?  Very well, then I contradict myself.  I am large, I contain multitudes.”  Walt Whitman 

Consistently we are lectured about the need for brands to be consistent.  They need to look the same everywhere.  They need to say the same thing everywhere.  They need to act the same every time.  The brand needs to say the same thing to all audiences.  That is one of the core principles of the  brand positioning theory.  A brand can only stand for one thing.  

In fact, in the current issue of Ad Age, Al Ries says “Almost every successful brand in the world started as a narrowly focused brand that stood for a single idea.”  And he goes on to say that brands need to narrow what they stand for.  They can stand for one thing and one thing only.

Yet 87% of marketing decision makers say that branding needs to be more flexible today because business is more dynamic and fast moving.  (This is from new research we conducted with JupiterResearch.  You can download the full study, Shifts in Marketing at

Here the brand positioning theory directly conflicts with the needs of marketers.  

Something has to give.  Should the needs of marketers bend to the theory of brand positioning?  Or should marketers look for another model of branding?

I am simplifying the matter here.  But the clear answer is that the needs of marketers must align with the branding method they are using.  That is where Narrative Branding (R) has an advantage over brand positioning.  Narrative Branding recognizes that the brand needs to evolve, to tell different parts of the brand story to different audiences.

To be clear, this post is not suggesting that brands should be contradictory.  Certainly nobody  is advocating for a brand to contradict itself.  Unless, of course, their brand is Walt Whitman or maybe even Alan Ginsberg.

A narrative approach to branding replaces the idea of “consistency” with the idea of “coherence.”  A brand needs to share its story to several audiences.  Customers, perhaps several different segments of customers.  Employees, investors, business partners.  These different strands or narrative threads must be coherent.  They need to complement each other.  They need to add up to the larger narrative of the brand.  

Certainly we do this as people.  

Consider New Year’s Eve.  Several people asked me about my New Year’s Eve, and I told each of them a different facet of that evening.  I told my sister about watching the movie, Chariots of Fire, because we both have a love of running.  To my friend Madeleine, I spoke of being home and playing Taboo and other games.  They each learned different facets of my evening.   My conversations with them were rich and engaging.  Had I told them both the same story, I would diminished myself, I would become one dimensional.  I am not as large as Walt Whitman, so I cannot afford to contradict myself.  But I am not as limited as brand positioning would have me.

The same is true for a brand.

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