I recently attended the national sales meeting of a high-end boat manufacturer that our firm represents and was delighted to listen as one of their top dealers gave an impassioned speech on the critical need for “congruence” when dealing with their customers. I could not have agreed with him more, and was motivated to take a few minutes to write out my thoughts on what this idea really means in the marketplace and why it is absolutely essential to building a successful company.
At the heart of this concept is the strong belief that every single aspect of the brand experience must be uncompromisingly consistent throughout all touch points with the consumer. From first exposure, to pre-purchase, to the buying event, to product decline and eventual obsolescence and finally to re-purchase — every interaction must fully support the brand promise.
(Note: the “Brand Promise” is the promise you make and keep to you customers about everything you will deliver to them when they purchase your products and services. The features, advantages, rewards, excitement, pride, satisfaction, fun, enjoyment, safety… the complete package of all physical and emotional benefits tied directly to your brand.)
An excellent example of brand congruence might be the luxury car segment. The three-pointed star of a Mercedes-Benz, the black, white and blue shield of a BMW or the leaping cat of the Jaguar all immediately bring to mind unique brand identities that are almost universally associated with each specific automobile. Mercedes represents fine German engineering and prestige. BMW is the ultimate driving machine. And Jaguar is the four wheeled embodiment of beauty and luxury. If you happened to have an extra $100,000 laying around and decided to shop these three brands, what you would find is that every element of the advertising, marketing, sales, customer service and service support of these brands are 100% congruent with their individual brand promises. The ads are stunning, the showrooms are elegant, the professionalism and attention in the sales process is impressive and the follow on customer service is exceptional. The fact that these cars are incredible feats of engineering prowess and craftsmanship is only one cog in the wheel of a finely tuned brand congruence process.
And make no mistake, it is precisely this focused and well-planned brand congruence system that keeps these cars at the top of the market. Even the best built car in the world would not have a chance at success if the advertising were poor, the buying experience distasteful and the customer service lacking. It is only when all aspects of the brand experience are positively reinforcing that a product can climb to dominate its market.
Let me give you another example that will help bring this idea into even sharper focus. Perhaps the world’s leading practitioners of brand congruence are the master marketers at Disney World. While you are still in your car, 20 miles from the front gate, they have already begun to take control of your experience of their brand. Billboards, street signs and landscaping tell you that you are nearing the “Magic Kingdom.” From the second you arrive on the property every element of your visit is carefully orchestrated to keep you consistently wrapped in the Disney brand. They do not have customers; you are their “guest.” They do not have employees; they have “cast members.” They don’t go to work; they “perform.” They don’t walk down the street in the park; they go “on stage.” The grounds are immaculate, the characters are always in character, the food is tasty, the rides work, and all the merchandise looks cool. Every element… every single element has been planned down to the smallest detail to create a seamless brand experience of “family fun and entertainment” for the tens of thousands of guests that flood into the park every morning.
By the way, you’ll notice that companies who are consistently superb in delivering their brand promise can often charge a premium for bringing that special experience to the customer. Even the lowest priced BMW would not be considered cheap, costing nearly as much as taking a family of four to Disney World for the weekend! And also keep in mind that consistent does not mean boring. A brand can and must be fresh, exciting, surprising and delightful (think Disney again)… while still maintaining congruence and always delivering on the brand promise.
So here is the question: how can you “Disney-ize” your business? What can you do to ensure that every touch point of customer contact as close to perfect as you can get it? To help you get started here is a very short list of a few things you might want to look at under the microscope of brand congruence:
- Is the look, feel and design of your advertising “on brand” and focused precisely at your key target market? Does it address the rational reasons why purchasing your product is a wise choice, as well as the key emotional triggers that go directly to the aspirations of your target customers?
- Is your media placement congruent with the image you are trying to portray? Is your brand marketed with complimentary brands, in appropriate media vehicles, to exactly the right target customers? (If you are trying to sell Lear jets you don’t put an ad in the local auto-trader).
- Is every step in the customer’s experience of your business “’on brand?” How your people answer the phone, the appearance of your parking lots, grounds and buildings, the dress and demeanor of your staff, the cleanliness and attractiveness of the offices, waiting rooms and bathrooms?
- Is the presentation of your products artful and unique? Do you make it extremely easy to understand all of the products and services you offer? Is there signage, brochures, DVDs and product fliers in plain view?
- Is the buying process easy, fair and respectful of your customers? Are they given all of the help, information and support they need to make a positive buying decision? Are your sales people well trained experts on your products and services that never, ever pressure, manipulate or lie to a customer?
- Is the after-sale process friendly, attentive and professional? Do you stand squarely behind your products and services and welcome every opportunity to make things right, fix problems, handle difficulties?
- Do you stay in close touch with your customers, thank them for their business, work hard to keep them loyal and encourage them to send their friends and associates to you?
I could add another 100 items to this list, but I am sure you have the point. Congruence is more complicated and much more important than you probably ever imagined.
Many businesses think that if they just put out a good quality product they can build a successful enterprise, but product alone will never carry the day. Other companies figure they can win on price, however selling “low price” is rarely the best strategy and works with a limited range of products in only a few select markets. What the facts and experience tells us then, is that only the firms that enthusiastically embrace and consistently deliver a highly congruent brand experience will be able gain share and maintain healthy margins, even in the face of difficult markets and aggressive competition.