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The End Of Brands?


I recently read a New Yorker article entitled “Twilight of the Brands” written by James Surowiecki. In it, he posits that with the advent of the Internet and the comparison shopping and consumer feedback that it enables, consumers have more perfect information about product alternatives including their quality and value.

Therefore, there is far less need for brands to offer those assurances. In the article, Mr. Surowiecki says that Interbrand argues that brands help people sift through the overwhelming amount of information, simplifying their product choices, however he points out that people have learned how to sift through an enormous amount of information efficiently and effectively, negating Interbrand’s argument. I follow Mr. Surowiecki’s logic and largely agree with his premise. Where we part ways is in the definition of a brand. Implied in his discussion is that brands are a communication overlay to products and are largely created by advertising. I had a similar reaction when I first read Naomi Klein’s book, No Logo. I followed her logic too and there is much that she said that I agreed with. But when she talked about the evil of brands it seemed to me that she was really talking about the harmful effects of consumerism and our overly commercialized society.

I have always thought about brands as personifications of organizations and their products and services. In this way, they can embrace values, have personalities and make promises. Further, they can consistently deliver on those promises building trust and loyalty or they can fail to deliver on those promises, creating distrust and disloyalty. In a way, brands help bring a human perspective back to organizations, especially in their interactions with their customers. That is, they provide a vehicle through which organizations can build relationships with their customers.

To transform organizations and their products and services into strong brands, organizations must have a very high level of customer intimacy. An increasing number of organizations even reach out to their customers to co-create their brands with them. Today’s process of brand management goes well beyond brand identity management and marketing communication.  It gets into values alignment, community building and co-creation of products, services and customer experiences. Further, it aligns organization values, systems, processes and employees in support of the brand’s promise. And, given this, the resulting products and services are very likely to possess superior quality and the brand is more likely to anticipate customer needs and delight customers in unexpected ways. In fact, well-managed brands also often result in innovative and visionary behavior.

Maybe I think about brands too broadly, but it is not in my nature to think of them in a more limited sense. And this is how we guide our clients to think about brands too.  So, from my perspective, inferior products are the result of inferior brand management.  While the two are not the same, they are very strongly linked.

I don’t believe brands are dying. I believe they have evolved from identities and communication created by marketing departments to the very souls and guiding principals of the organizations that bear their names.

May your brands be strong and may they lead to superior products and services.

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Hilton Barbour
Twitter: ZimHilton
on February 25th, 2014 said

James Surowiecki’s article has certainly caused much consternation and gnashing of teeth. Much like Schumpter’s piece in The Economist which also suggested brands were in decline.

Like you I believe that is a slanted, singular view of what the word ‘brand” means.

Strong brands are the result of organizations with a strong sense of purpose/direction and vision. A purpose that galvanizes internal resources and catalyses external audiences. Internal resources want to contribute to the organizations success and external audiences chose that organization because they align with its purpose. While I disagree with the general statement that brands are in decline, I absolutely agree that organizations without purpose cannot create or sustain strong brands. THOSE brands are very definitely destined for the scrapheap.

Franklin Grippe
Twitter: Grippe_LLC
on February 26th, 2014 said

Surowiecki reminds me of a person I used to work with that said branding had no effect them. But a quick look inside this persons office quickly revealed that this was not the case. Major brand selections all over the place.

Maybe some people just don’t like to admit how much of a consumer they really are and the role brands play in that. Who knows? That denial is a different article.

No, brands are clearly not dead. I guess I should say that well-designed, well-built (insert your nomenclature preference here) brands are dead.

My personal preference is to be a generalist, because great branding is all about context. And a more informed, expanded, and complete understanding and definition of that context is certainly key, as you stated.

Which is why I think the OGs, the great general agencies have gotten this for some time. Kind of like a positive version of the borg. They are good at everything. They absorb all skill sets as the context of branding more fully evolves. However they come with a high price tag. And aren’t for everyone.

So i think other practitioners of branding, like yourselves, get this also. Perhaps better in some working contexts. I like to think of branding as a form of design thinking. And ultimately why I think we need a unified theory. Well, maybe we already do. We just don’t want to admit that because we are busy differentiating ourselves. Branding ourselves. Ironically, Surowiecki does this too.

The bottom line is that brands are not dead. In fact, with the right cultivators they are flourishing. Choose the one you think is the best fit for your company. Because, it is the psychological shorthand of a information cluttered world, among other things. A world loaded with choices. And thats a good thing.

Franklin Grippe
Twitter: Grippe_LLC
on February 26th, 2014 said

“I guess I should say that well-designed, well-built (insert your nomenclature preference here) brands are NOT dead.”

Rick Roth
Twitter: rickroth1
on February 26th, 2014 said

I’m with Hilton, perhaps without the gnashing of teeth.
The more consumers are able to compare products functionally – and this, a trend with no end in sight – the more consumers will reward those that truly differentiate based on behavior, look, voice, attitude, and purpose. This is a timeless truth that holds across everything from cpg to btb to politics.
Brands are fundamentally defined by the relationships they create. We bond to those we relate to and remain loyal to those who deliver on their end of the relationship expectation.
Brands are people too… I do not see them becoming faceless, voiceless, aimless entities living in a plane brown bag any time soon. If anything, they need to be cared for by the proper hands to grow their importance and their commercial value.
Thank goodness,
Rick Roth

Steve Chayer
Twitter: adi_seattle
on February 26th, 2014 said

Here here! We need to pay attention to our branding even more today then ever, not less. At the end of the day consumers make purchase decisions for emotional reasons not logical ones. Brands create the emotional pull when they work properly and repulsion when they do not.

Twitter: Diplomat_Serge
on February 27th, 2014 said

Great article!

I really agree with your conclusion, Brad. But I found another good tip in your post. It’s working together with your customers t co-create your brand. It sounds VERY simple! But that is what the majority of companies ignore. I believe, brands that do that, create themselves 100% success scenario. As they let customers show their vision and their opinion what brand should be like from their – customers’ – point of view. This is very crucial step that will help brands carry out their main purpose – work for customers.

Amit Patel on February 28th, 2014 said

This is wrong. It may be possible to distill information and make purchase decisions with the technology available. However, to put it simply, people DON’T. It assumes people are rational, logical and methodical about their purchase decisions – which is simply not true. You need to look at high end research groups like brain juicer who, time and time again, prove most of the BS floating around in the advertising/marketing world, as false. And NO. people don’t want to co-create or get into bed with brands. Its the brands job to come up with their own proposition and sell it to consumers. Imagine if you try to co-create or crowd sourced TV shows. You’ll never see another board walk empire, or suits, or any other or these great entertainment vehicles which people are highly engaged in and tune into every week.

Jeff Halmos on February 28th, 2014 said

It seems to me that the so-called loyalty that brands have desired (or was it “demanded”) of their audience is in the process of flipping. With Net-empowered vigilante consumers, THEY are now the one expecting that greased-pig loyalty from companies. And with a continually declining global economy, it’s just going to get even more difficult for businesses to keep up. What does this do to companies and brands? I think it’s causing them to dial down the rhetoric. Dial down the sexy brand aesthetics. And to amp the content. Amp the offering. And I think it’s why you’re seeing dead dull logo redesigns, for example: companies are basically saying “Fuck it. You tell US who we are. Tell US what you want.” They’re throwing themselves into the moshpit and hoping the crowd work it out for themselves, and via social media, then trying to read the tea leaves in order to figure out how to show their loyalty.

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