Brands are Dead

This is a guest post from Dim Bulb‘s Jonathan Salem Baskin.

Along with the crisis in financial markets, there’s another ugly truth we need to admit: brands are dead, and it’s time for marketers to admit it.

Nobody carries brands around in their heads. Nobody has a relationship with a brand. Or lives a brand lifestyle. Brands aren’t conversations, and they’re not bought, possessed, or coveted. Companies don’t own them. Neither do consumers or shareholders.

Of course, if asked, most people can freely associate words with a name. Conversely, all of us can remember a funny commercial or mascot, even if we can’t connect it to a product or service. And everyone has opinions about marketing, primarily because it intrudes on our every experience.

But brands are simply irrelevant in a world wherein people know that one airplane seat looks like another, different clothes and PCs are made in the same factories overseas, and that most companies expect customers to help themselves. Or when price and availability matter.

In such times — just like in any times, really — human beings make purchase decisions based on their own experiences of real life, not on the imagined associations of brands. The Internet allows us to amplify the facts, opinions, and experiences of our lives, and elevates them to the role of qualifying, advising, and informing our choices.

We attach meaning to brand names, not the other way around. And we do it through the 24/7, real-time experiences of living. Companies can’t rely on hype, logos, funny creative, or any technological invention to influence, let alone overcome or control, what consumers know, think, or feel.

It’s wishful thinking to believe otherwise. It’s also unsustainable.

Those many billions of dollars spent this year in doomed hope that branding will somehow, sometime, somewhere, get consumers to ignore what they already know, and do something different? Don’t expect to see those budgets next year. I think the brand marketing world is destined for a whole lot of hurt.

Are we equipped to deal with it?

Or will we continue to make sure that there’s no shortage of newfangled ideas, mostly intended to distract consumers instead of interrupting them, and always staying far away from actually selling them anything? Will it be enough to repeatedly resurrect in social media, games, and other tools of technology the voodoo tenets of brands that were invented in strange, distantly different times (i.e. the Dark Ages of the mid-20th Century)?

Nope. I think we need to admit that brands are dead, and start asking different questions of ourselves before the answers get handed to us by our companies and clients. It’s not going to be tolerated any longer for us to pretend that they just don’t ‘get’ branding.

Well, neither do consumers. And that means we won’t get our budgets, or keep our jobs, next year.

As it stands now, the upcoming holidays and 2009 will not be a banner year for the branding racket: budgets will be smaller, patience will be shorter, and trust will become even a rarer commodity. Marketers will spend more time talking — participating in more conversations with consumers — yet reputations, purchases, and loyalty won’t necessarily follow, even as the pressures of the latest recession mount.

Why aren’t alarms being sounded? Where’s the soul-searching about the very foundations of how we define brands? Where is the Manhattan Project, sponsored by Brandweek (or some such other industry rag) challenging marketers not to find more proof for what they hope is true, but rather building entirely new models of what brands are, what they do, and then how they’re measured?

Think reality…financial measures that have existing credibility with businesses, and not more made-up numbers or acronyms that only we understand…and start thinking about awareness, intent, and the other intangibles as the tactics of branding, while seeing the behaviors they prompt as the brands themselves.

Again, where’s the siren call to action? Instead of finding new ways to do the same old stuff, you’d think somebody would be advocating doing something truly new. Loudly. Incessantly.

I don’t presume to have the answer. But you don’t have to be a dim bulb to wonder why aren’t more people asking the question.

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Baskin is the author of Branding Only Works on Cattle, published in late September by Business Business Plus. He is a columnist for Advertising Age, blogs at Dim Bulb, and consults worldwide with businesses on getting something tangible for branding.

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