Brands can be elusive. We build them in boardrooms, share them via brand campaigns, and back them by delivering products and experiences. Yet, once a brand is out in the world, its value and meaning can feel out of our control.
Brand integrity is essential to ensuring that the way your brand is perceived and interpreted by consumers aligns with your brand vision, fostering trust and loyalty. It’s a crucial part of what can make or break your brand. The stronger your brand integrity, the easier it will be for you to convert leads and transform customers into advocates.
This guide outlines why brand integrity is important and how you can build and maintain a brand that has it.
What is Brand Integrity?
At its simplest, brand integrity is a reflection of how the way your brand is perceived and experienced by people stacks up against the promises and values it purports to have.
People interact with brands in multiple ways and at every stage of the buyer journey. Every single interaction is an opportunity for your brand to convey a message or purpose, or to deliver value. In addition, each experience a person has with your brand combines to create an overall impression of what your brand stands for.
Every decision your company makes that aligns with your brand values and promises, you appear to act with integrity. If your brand represents quality, and your products are the best you can get, your brand has integrity. Every time you fail to deliver on the image you’ve built, you risk losing some of that precious integrity.
Why is Brand Integrity Important?
When a brand loses integrity, its value and meaning are diminished, along with the sense of trust consumers have in your brand.
Authenticity, transparency, and sincerity are critical components of the brand experience. If you demonstrate to your customers that your brand sticks to its own principles, acts according to its own values, and follows through on promises, you’ll be rewarded with their trust, loyalty, and, ultimately, their hard-earned cash.
Additionally, brand integrity highlights that no campaign can fix a bad brand experience, so you must strive for brand integrity. Here are some reasons why.
Brand integrity builds trust
Each time a customer comes into contact with your brand, they expect to be met with the same, consistent brand experience. When that expectation is met, people come to trust your brand to deliver. Trust is a key factor in consumer purchase decisions, with 81% of consumers reporting that they need to be able to trust a brand in order to buy from them. The bigger the investment, the more trust needed.
The Volkswagen brand suffered sorely in the wake of the company’s emissions scandal. By cheating, the brand contradicted its well-established image of being a reliable, trustworthy brand, losing an immense amount of brand integrity in the process.
Brands with integrity are more likely to have brand advocates
By consistently delivering on a promise that aligns with a customer’s expectation, you’re much more likely to develop enough brand affinity that people actively promote and advocate for your brand.
Brand advocates are consumers who love your brand, genuinely use or aspire to use your products, and want to see your brand succeed. These people are your most loyal and enthusiastic customers. Brand advocates are highly valuable, as they will promote and recommend your brand to others, often creating user-generated content, and making glowing posts or rave reviews.
Curly hair care brand DevaCurl built a large following of customers and advocates who talked about the brand with passionate fervor. However, the brand came under fire when a number of consumers and former brand ambassadors claimed to have experienced damage and hair loss from their products. Instead of recalling products and apologizing for the damage, the company continues to promote their products and denies any responsibility, all the while making statements such as “Nothing is more important to us than you.”
This contradiction of actions and words has resulted in former brand advocates passionately working against the brand, hoping to protect other consumers from potential damage and hair loss.
Brand integrity helps you reach the right people
A brand with integrity is one whose core message, purpose, and value is aligned across every possible touchpoint. From the website through to the packaging of a product, everything is designed to enhance and support a specific brand experience and image. When brands get this right, it resonates with the intended audience.
If your brand focuses on supporting a consistent experience that’s informed by your understanding of the values and needs of the people you want to reach, it’s much more likely to reach and resonate with those people.
Take outdoor apparel company Patagonia. Part of their mission is to “cause no unnecessary harm”, a lofty goal for a global brand. The company took a bold step when they launched their “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign during a Black Friday sales period, urging people to reflect more on what they buy and how much they consume. Perhaps not the best campaign for driving sales that season, but the message garnered plenty of attention and resonated among those consumers who share Patagonia’s eco-friendly ethos. Which brand do you think those people will likely choose when the time comes that they need a new jacket?
Strong brand integrity may be the edge you need to beat your competitors
In this digital age, consumers have so much choice at their fingertips, as well as access to a world of information to inform their purchase decisions. If a person is dissatisfied with one brand, they can immediately find an alternative. So, it’s crucial that your brand stands out from the crowd—in a good way.
Brand integrity gives weight and meaning to the claims you make about your brand and your products. By being consistent, you’ll develop a reputation for being true to your word that will set you a cut above the rest.
How to Build and Maintain Brand Integrity
The benefits of brand integrity are clear, but how do you know if you’ve got it? And how do you build and maintain it?
Whether you’re building a brand from scratch or rebranding an existing one, you’ve got to start with the basics and get clear on your brand identity. From there, it’s a matter of applying that vision to everything you do. And, as the saying goes: it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Get clear on your brand purpose, promise, and values
You can’t build brand integrity without first understanding what meaning you want your brand to have. Get back to basics and define your brand’s values, purpose, and promises. Consider who you’re trying to reach and let their values, needs, and characteristics inform your branding decisions.
To take it a step further: consider how purposeful you want your brand to be. Do you want to connect it to something bigger? Consumers are increasingly demanding sustainability and social responsibility from brands. But before you make bold claims about how much you’re going to give back to communities, think about how much you can realistically follow through with. It’s better not to align your brand with a social or environmental cause than to make empty claims and be called out for greenwashing.
Align your brand promise with your offering
Let’s return to the example of Patagonia, whose other brand promise is to “build the best product”. A brand that promises high quality, durable products must back it up with their product offering if they want to maintain brand integrity. If Patagonia didn’t deliver on that promise by producing products that last, their integrity would be compromised. A brand that only promises to make affordable apparel, rather than the “best”, may indeed have more brand integrity than a brand that over-promises and under-delivers.
Understand the nuances in the promises you make and use them to bring your products in line. Communicate honestly about your products to set realistic expectations about what they can and cannot do. If your promise is to be fashion-forward and edgy, your products should reflect the latest styles and hottest trends. Consistently delivering on that promise will gradually build integrity as consumers learn they can trust your brand.
One disastrous example of a brand that didn't deliver on their promises is the notorious Fyre Festival, which left eager festival-goers stranded on a half-deserted island. While this example is an extreme case that landed the festival’s creator in prison, the basic principle applies to all brands. Failing to deliver on your brand promise in your actual product or service offering is a quick way to reduce brand integrity.
Be consistent across all brand touchpoints
Consistency and cohesion are key. If a consumer is getting one message from an ad or social media channel and another when they head to your website, you’ve got a problem. Mixed messages between any of your consumer touchpoints will erode your brand integrity.
Consider every opportunity a consumer has to come into contact with your brand. Everything from an email campaign to a social media post, to your call-waiting music, is a brand touchpoint. Even a candidate’s experience in applying for a job at your company is an interaction with your brand. Everyone in your business has a part in branding, so you must ensure everyone is on the same page when it comes to what your brand represents. Create a brand manifesto that everyone can access, or even invest in employee brand training.
Opportunities for employees to experience the brand or products themselves is crucial to their ability to understand the customer experience and apply the brand identity to their part of the business. BMW Group Australia) provides employees with opportunities to lease company cars and encourages them to participate in staff-only BMW Driving Experience events.
Consumers have become more cynical and discerning, and the pressure is on for brands to show vulnerability and authenticity. A human-centered approach can go a long way in building trust and ultimately, integrity in consumers.
With digital marketing, we have more ways than ever to connect with our audience, and endless opportunities to engage with them directly. Even financial service providers no longer need to be overly professional, with new players such as Venmo adopting more casual communication styles to connect with their audiences.
To adopt a more human tone, avoid using jargon or legaleze, and project an attitude of honesty and openness. Building a more authentic tone behind your brand builds trust and tells consumers they can trust you (without explicitly telling them they can trust you).
Everyone makes a faux pas from time to time, maintaining brand integrity involves owning up to your blunders and apologizing, rather than pointing the finger or going silent. When people see that a company is willing to take responsibility for a misstep and learn from it, you’ll find that they’re more likely to forgive you.
Facebook faced enormous consumer backlash in 2018, when it emerged that a political data firm had harvested the personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge or consent. Instead of apologizing and admitting fault or accountability, Facebook’s spokespeople vehemently defended the brand.
Eventually, they promised to take action to improve users’ ability to control their privacy settings, something that CEO Mark Zuckerberg had already promised, and failed to do, years prior. It should be no surprise then, that Facebook is one of the least trusted social media platforms.
Listen and adapt
To maintain brand integrity you need to be alert to changes and agile enough to adapt to them. New trends develop constantly, and world events can shift public opinion and the relationship between consumers and brands. Monitor the changing needs of your audience and keep track of how your brand is perceived by keeping tabs on key brand metrics.
By listening, you can better anticipate and adapt to changes. While staying true to your core values and message is important to build integrity, don’t be so staunch that you can’t change when it’s appropriate. Integrity is also about adapting your values in the face of wider changes, and they can happen quickly, and not being ready to respond can cost you dearly.
The events of 2020 saw a number of well-established brands break tradition and respond to public pressure by updating their names and packaging. By paying attention to the consumer landscape, and ending the use of racist imagery and product names, these brands have been able to regain some integrity.
Challenges in Building Brand Integrity
There are a number of challenges to building a brand, and building brand integrity can be added to the list. Some of the challenges you may face when building brand integrity include:
Getting buy-in from other parts of the business. If your employees have never even used your product, getting other departments to agree to learn can be a big hurdle. Be prepared to outline the benefits and risks, and have a clear plan of action as to where you want to start (hint: a brand manifesto is a great starting point!)
Sudden changes in public opinion or consumer sentiment. If you don’t already have your finger on the pulse, it’s easy to take a misstep after a sudden change. Be prepared by tracking your brand health regularly/. That way, you know what position you’re starting with and can better assess how and whether you need to take action.
Trying to do (or be) it all. Your brand can’t stand for every good thing in the world. If you try to represent too many values, or support too many causes, you’re destined to let somebody down and damage your integrity. Niche down and stick to what’s relevant to your target audience to prevent overloading your brand.
What To Do If Your Brand Integrity Has Been Compromised
Thankfully, not every blunder will require a full rebrand. If the integrity of your brand has taken a big hit, the first step is to understand what happened, apologize authentically, and learn from it.
Next, go back to square one and consider what your brand message, purpose, and values are and determine how you will apply that to your products and brand experiences. This could be a great point in time to undergo a brand audit.
There’s no quick fix, recovering from a loss of integrity takes time. As we said earlier, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Customers are spending more time searching for brands that can offer them authentic, genuine relationships. Brand integrity can create a foundation of trust, upon which these relationships can be built, developed, and nurtured. Consumers that trust your brand and know what to expect are much more likely to become loyal customers or even brand advocates. Make sure to work on your brand integrity as well as other KPIs to grow and maintain a loyal customer base.