<%@ Language=VBScript %> <% CheckState() CheckSub() %> Chameleon brands: tailoring brand messages to consumers
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Jul 2000

Chameleon Brands: Tailoring Brand Messages to Consumers

Roderick White, Conquest, argues that brands cannot, and should not, be totally single-minded: advertising executions should be tailored to media and audience

Last September, an Admap editorial1 introduced the concept of the chameleon brand, on the basis of conversations with thinkers in the business. In this article, I have attempted to put some more flesh on the concept, and to show how it could be developed.

Why should we think of brands as chameleons?

If markets and media are fragmenting, and consumers are becoming more individualistic, choosy and demanding, brands will have to adapt if they are to develop or maintain significant franchises: otherwise, brands as we know them will be dead. Although there is some debate about this, no one really seems to believe that brands will die, because they have the massive advantage for the consumer of making life simpler. They guarantee consistency and offer an easy choice, in a world where there are too many choices available and too little time to waste on choosing. Indeed, it is increasingly argued that the rapid development of online advertising and e-commerce makes the brand more, not less, important.

The logical conclusion to be drawn from increased fragmentation, as far as an individual brand is concerned, is that it must become (more) multi-faceted, in order to appeal effectively and – still – explicitly to a more diverse set of consumer needs and/or attitudes. It will not be sufficient to appeal to a single group of people, in a single need.state, because this will not generate the necessary sales volumes, and more specifically targeted competitors will pick off the fringe buyers of the brand.

In practice, this is not massively different from the situation that many brands have already developed. Even food brands, for example, are eaten by different people for different reasons, and on different occasions – but they are rarely directly promoted for more than one or two of them, except in supporting material like recipe leaflets.

More positively, the developing disciplines of customer relationship management propose that we should split our customers into groups (of ‘strategically significant customers’ – SSCs), which we should then treat in specific and different ways.

In fact, if a brand is faced by a widely diverging group of consumers, and the possibility exists of reaching them through reasonably targeted (‘lifestyle’) media (of all kinds), it makes sense to think of fragmenting the brand’s communications, to a hitherto unheard-of extent. This demands a new kind of brand – or at least a new kind of thinking about brands – the ‘chameleon brand’.

Chameleon brands: characteristics

What exactly is a chameleon brand? Chameleon brands:

What does a chameleon brand look like?

It all depends. It depends where it is, and also who is looking at it.

And it depends why they are interested. (In the natural world, predator or prey!)

It depends on perceptions: consumers see what they want to see, and we should allow – even encourage – them to pick the elements of our brand that they choose to emphasise. (I see my Armani cotton shirt as supremely comfortable; you see it as a nicely understated piece of Italian fashion; he sees it as a piece of meretricious designer over-marketing; they admire the label.)

It invites re-evaluation: because ‘media’ overlap with each other, people who see the brand one way in one context may see it differently in another. Unless the two views are totally different, this should add richness to the brand’s gestalt in the consumer’s perception, rather than creating dissonance.

Hence, a chameleon brand offers a rich, complex experience. It carries the seeds of its own renewal within itself. But it also retains a consistent internal structure: this gives it its essential integrity – a chameleon adapts to its surroundings, but remains a chameleon. To become an iguana or a tree-frog would be to undermine trust (or to create a new brand).

But isn’t this a denial of everything we think we know about brands?

No, because it recognises the fundamental truth that brands are not what we make them, but what the consumer decides to make them: since all consumers are – at least slightly – different, any brand that is not utterly simplistic will be a series of different things to different individuals.

In other words, we are helping, or encouraging, or facilitating a completely natural, everyday process. And, in practice, implementing the marketing concept properly. (When could you last say that about virtually anything you did?).

Chameleon brands are the impossible: One-to-one brands – on prime-time TV.

How do we go about building chameleon brands?

It depends on the brand . . . but, essentially, it depends on the medium. And it depends on how consumers respond.

The best way to experiment with a chameleon brand is, in fact, on the web: look at the (very simple) case study on Salon Selectives banners in the IPA e-media book.2 Five quite different banners, each producing a different kind of response, each appropriate to different locations and sites on the web. And, because it’s the web, you can measure and monitor the response. In time, but probably not quite yet, it should be possible to define, retrospectively, the (different) types of people who respond positively to each of the chameleon facets. Eventually, but certainly not yet, one could even predict the responses.

But there is no reason why we should not be thinking much harder, now, about the deployment of multiple messages for our (chameleon) brands.

In magazines, in particular, there is by now ample evidence that if a consumer takes notice of an ad, subsequent exposures to that ad are significantly less effective, because magazine ad attention is sufficiently deliberate that once is usually enough – ‘seen it, been there, done that …’ Why not surprise them with a different ad anyway? And, if it’s geared to a slightly different need-state, additional benefits should accrue.

This fits, too, with the growing move towards multi-media and integrated campaigns. The whole point of using
different media and different communication tools is not to say precisely the same thing in precisely the same way. That is not integration, but regimentation. Proper integration uses each medium (in the broadest sense) to add something; to fill in a bit of the picture; to build towards a whole that most consumers will never, at least in the short term, perceive. (And, of course, to move the audience towards positive action.) Consumers do accept this.3

Thus, a brand becomes a living, creative organism which offers the consumer the opportunity to contribute to the creation of my brand – which will, almost by definition, be unique, even though it may resemble your version.4

‘My chameleon’

If you play word association games with brands in research, on a one-to-one basis, it becomes clear that each individual has a different set of associations with a well-known brand. Some will be common: any heavily advertised brand will have succeeded in implanting a range of key images or thoughts from its campaigns into many people’s minds, even if these are not always fully absorbed or digested (Robert Heath’s ‘concrete associations’5).

Even if a single word dominates – which ties in with the widely expressed view that we should be able to reduce a successful brand to a single key word or phrase – the associations of that word will be quite complex and multi-faceted.

At the same time, because media schedules never deliver complete coverage, or adequate repetition against more than a few of the target audience, the picture of the brand will always be, for most people, fragmentary or selective.

What is more, because both the brand’s advertising and the people reached by it change over time, the brand associations in the individual’s mind will rarely be constant. Think back about any well-known brand, and search your memory. There will be a whole range of images, words, ideas, which, if you reflect on them, may cover ten or twenty years of the brand’s public life (see Appendix).

The example shows, in its essentials, how we can build our chameleons, but it reflects a largely linear process, over time. We are talking here of doing the whole thing simultaneously.

Rearing chameleons

The fundamental – and absolutely essential – first step in chameleon breeding is the established discipline of identifying, refining and honing the core of the brand. (We may call it essence, core, meaning or even proposition.)

We then use this, not in the traditional, single-minded, fmcg 30-second commercial way. Not to produce a single set of communications that are designed to hammer home the proposition, to the exclusion of anything else.

Quite the reverse. We take the core proposition as – if you like – the ‘theme’ for a theme and variations: the jumping-off point for a kaleidoscope of associations, inversions, elaborations that come at the proposition from a wide variety of angles. We mix and remix. We create hyperlinks.

You can see the process at work in a growing number of ad campaigns, though it is still fairly rare, and not always developed as consciously and
systematically as this article implies.

A good example of a brand that started to get that way by circumstance, but is in the process of being built into a deliberately planned chameleon, is the Bank of Scotland. The Bank has several rather different facets to its business and, like all major banks in the UK, operates across a wide range of sub-sectors of the financial services market. (Financial service brands are especially likely to be actual or potential chameleons.)

In Scotland, it is a leading retail bank, with branches in all significant communities, and a long-established position as one of the two market leaders in consumer banking and a leader in business banking. Outside Scotland, the Bank’s consumer business is almost entirely direct, through telephone or computer, and the bulk of the consumer business is in a fairly limited range of products. In Scotland, of course, it is thoroughly familiar; while elsewhere in the UK it is relatively little known, and frequently confused with its Scottish rival, the Royal Bank of Scotland.

The overall communication strategy for the brand involves a blend of the familiar heritage and 300 years of tradition with the recent track record of innovative product and service development. For individual products, and in different media, the emphasis is varied. Like an increasing number of modern brands, the business is being developed, inter alia, through a growing group of strategic alliances.

But what about consistency?

In an earlier article,6 I raised the question of how valuable consistency in communications might be – and pointed to the lack of clear evidence about this. HPI’s researches, across the communications mix, suggest that consistency is not necessarily essential3 – at least not as usually thought about: the integration of communications across media and disciplines needs to be there, but need not be slavish.

But then chameleons are not, if properly handled, inconsistent: it is the more superficial aspects of the brand that vary to fit the context.

What are the implications for action?

From an ad agency perspective, there are some clear implications of all this:


  1. ‘Chameleon brands’, Admap, September 1999.

  2. Charmaine Oakley: ‘Internet targeting and finding the right mindset’, in J Swinfen-Green (ed.), e-media, IPA London/Admap Publications, 2000.

  3. David Iddiols: ‘Marketing superglue’, Admap, May 2000.

  4. Julian Martin: ‘Building brands offline and online’, Admap, May 2000.

  5. Robert Heath: ‘Low-involvement processing’ Part 2, Admap, April 2000.

  6. Roderick White: ‘Creative consistency: vice or virtue?’, Admap, July 1999.


Just jeans?

‘Levi’s’ may bring to mind a launderette and a pretty guy stripping; loud and unfamiliar music accompanying a cartoon rescuer hanging from a wire, with a frantic girl over his shoulder; a flat yellow puppet (whaaat?!); American wilderness . . . and back into more non-advertising elements: toughness, cowboys, the Depression, any film set in the west of the US … and so on. 

Interestingly, at least to this individual, it all seems quite a long way from the product – tough, hard-wearing (there in the imagery), practical, a bit pricey, original (sort of in the imagery), non- (not un-) fashionable, ubiquitous, an icon.

Twenty years or so have created a very rich complex of intertwining, mostly supporting, elements that go to create the Levi’s brand for one individual. What’s more, because of age, sex, exposure to ads, taste, fashion interest and so on, you can be fairly sure that, while this particular view of the brand should be perfectly recognisable to anyone else, no one else will share precisely the deeper, or even the top-line, picture of the brand. Indeed, some of it will have happened before some of the target group were born … (in the US, where Levi’s carries less prestige, the picture would be some way different – which shows how chameleon thinking may be essential for global brands).

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