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)?

How to Hire the Right People For Your Small Business

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.

# # #

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.

  • One part of branding still seems to work, though — the cult of personality. I’d argue that Nike’s use of Tiger Woods to promote their golf equipment has been a success. I’d also say that the cult of personality meshes nicely with social media and opportunities in online marketing.

  • md

    I think this article misses the mark. In difficult economic times premium brands could see a rise in loyalty. Consumers are less likely to spend their decreased wages on an unknown entity. As long as the premium brands don’t completely out-price the market, the general consumer will go with the tried-and-true.

  • Runkie

    So, what exactly are you trying to say here? While you have attempted to weave a contemptive strike on the modern existence of branding, it appears to be a confusing tirade that neither validates brand’s non-existence nor highlights a remedy.

    “Nobody has a relationship with a brand.” Seriously? You can’t really be saying that the products we buy, the sports teams we root for, nor the commercial experiences we have in life don’t carry an emotional connection (good or bad)? I love my sports team, to which I have cried like a baby after a championship loss; I hate my phone carrier, to the point that I get puke burps anytime I even think I may need to call customer service; I anxiously await my daily trek to my facebook page… How then could I not have a relationship and/or emotional connection with these brand experiences?

    “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…” Yes, but one airlines service may be drastically different than another’s; one clothing brand might make one feel drastically more attractive than other; and sporting a Mac at the local Starbuck’s might be one’s pinnacle on the road to a carefully executed hipster persona.

    “…human beings make purchase decisions based on their own experiences of real life…” Yes, but they also make purchase decisions which amplifying the definition and/or aspirations they have of themselves. If only the world of commerce were as easy as creating utilitarian, lowest-cost products. Of course, this isn’t – and will never be – the case in a society that strives to fulfill more than merely basic needs.

    And if you need proof of this try looking at the fMRI neurological studies, which show that strong brand attachments spark distinct emotional activity at the neurological level of the brain. Or why not look at some competitor vs. competitor profitability data and see the impact of different branding approaches on revenues, profitability, and consumer engagement. Or even more simply, ask anyone you know what strong feelings they have towards the companies, products or service they love or hate. Do any of these things and you will realize that at a psychological, physiological and emotional level – we have a connection the material world around us (and, yes, relationships with brands).

    I savor intelligent contrarianism as much as anybody, but these ideas are on the brink of absurdity. Attack marketing, talk about how we as businesses and consumers can view it differently, but don’t launch an unsupported doctrine of change without understanding the basic facts of reality.

    Your attack on the modern fabric of commerce is equivalent to a physicist constructing a theory which argues the non-existence of gravity: wrong and naive.

  • I can totally understand and sort of respect the tenacity with which people like Runkie hold onto their preconceived notions. But tirades do not cogent arguments make, and attacking me is kind of silly.

    Human beings attach meaning to the things they do. We assign attributes real or imagined to what we buy and use.

    But to argue so angrily that we have ‘relationships with brands’ has no substance; we relate to what we do, and in doing so we define brands. Marketers who spend lots of money to assign those values for us do so with little effect. They might prompt an inquiry or even a purchase, but they cannot and do not attach lasting values — brands — to the products and services we use.

    We do. ‘Brands’ arise when we experience different products, or experience different levels of service. There are no ‘brands’ outside of our experience and moment-to-moment affirmation. They aren’t “them” or “it.” Sorry.

    fMRI and other neurological studies prove absolutely nothing about the relevance or utility of brands, other than that things prompts neurons to fire. We recognize certain things, and ignore others. So what? Marketers can’t manipulate these reactions, and they certainly can’t causally link them to subsequent purchase behavior.

    So, it’s funny: I’m not the contrarian. Believing in the magic of branding is the belief that flies in the face of reality.

    as they’re comfo

  • Runkie

    I think a point neglected here is that a brand is a the culmination of things like a great product, service, experience, advertisement, etc…. And these things are created by a company. While a company may simply be ‘making the meal’ and it is the consumer who defines – in part – how to eat it, there is a very deliberate and directed approach to this process (if done properly of course). Does it always work? Of course not. Does it never work? Of course not.

    To think of branding as a creative indulgence of logos, advertising and cluttered fodder in our lives is ignoring the overarching effect that brands have (and the companies who execute them).

    Yes, brands can take on a life of their own beyond what a company injects into them. And surely it is the definition of the brand experience that is owned by the consumer. It is fool hardy, however, to think that brands are an uncontrollable force beyond which a company can have any control.

    The values and intrinsic characteristics which a brand delivers to its customers are a result of the pre-contrived strategies of the companies executing them. A company can control how it’s messages are delivered. A company can control it’s values surrounding how the product experience is created. And a company can have a critical role in creating a specific brand connection with it’s customers.

    And forgive me for believing that it is unlikely for companies the world over to spend trillions of dollars in developing these brand experiences if they did not instigate a specific, valued response from customers.

  • Great points all. I’m still not sure what you’re defending, though, as ANY brand marketer will tell you that customers are harder to find, more difficult to convince, and nearly impossible to stay loyal. Trust in companies is at an all-time low, corporate reputation is terrible, and customer service ratings have (generally) trended lower, irrespective of all the miracle strategy and CRM software at our disposal.

    So to argue that there’s not something fundamentally wrong with how companies approach branding is beyond me. Branding RARELY works, and it NEVER accomplishes the goals of attaching immutable, motivational associations to products and services. And it’s all too-likely that companies all over the world would “spend trillions of dollars in developing these brand experiences” considering the enormous edifice of habit, routine, and agencies/consultancies/hopeful believers who work tirelessly to try and make true something that is little better than an outdated wish.

    Imagine if they (and you) stopping trying to make the case for why brands matter, and working tirelessly to find proof of your beliefs, and instead started from the point that any credible research scientist would embrace: brands DON’T matter, and then go about trying to identify what DOES influence and prompt customer behavior.

    We could call whatever we come up with ‘brands’ or ‘behavior’ or ‘Fred,’ for that matter.

    Anyway, thanks for the conversation.

  • Charles Byron

    Brands are dead?

    Jonathan, I know you are promoting a singular point of view, and I do applaud the positioning you’ve applied to this endeavor. I might even agree that the discipline of ‘branding’ is dead (if it was ever alive)…but brands? Good god, man.

    Your arguments appear to stem from a need to measure results. Fair enough. The problem comes when you try to measure that which cannot (or perhaps, should not) be measured. Yes, should not. (As in, “Honey, I love you .04% less than I did a week ago.”)

    Here’s the issue: during the past 15 years or so, as the economy grew and as companies attempted to push brands beyond their natural core, many a negative thing happened. Positioning (the act of articulating a brand’s natural essence in a competitive framework), was replaced with branding. Branding? You can’t ‘ing’ a brand. It’s like painting a house with a crumbling foundation.

    And so, branding became the superficial: logos and taglines. And brands were pushed further into ill-advised places by those who never understood their strengths and weaknesses in the first place.

    You now fight for commodity, when business needs a bit of magic. A bit of showmanship. Logic is easy to sell. Emotion, true connection, at an intangible level, is hard. Always has been. That’s why you can charge so much more for it.

    Brands are dead? Hardly. But your argument is. You see, Mr. Baskin, your name reminds that I’ve not had an ice cream cone in quite some time.

  • Oscar den Uijl

    A car lovers remark:

    No, brands are not dead yet. The really thick consumers who don’t get out much may still be swayed by a brand name in their buying decisions.

    There is, however, massive brand slaughter going on by the same people who want to levarage brands to make a sale, e.g. in the car industry. Once a consumer has to consider and research who is actually building his car and what quality it is, without being able to trust the brand name, the brand is dead.

    A Subaru with a Saab badge, front-wheel drive, overweight, Fiat-based diesel cars being called Alfa Romeos, Daewoos suddenly called Chevrolets, pimped Ford Mondeos called Jaguar… Many new cars seem to be an amalgamate of random components with a “brand” slapped on in a feeble attempt to suggest the emotion, continuity, and quality the brand once stood for.

    Some people know these things, and knowledge spreads. You can’t fool everybody forever. Putting forward a brand as a magical extra slapped on run-off-the-mill stuff is a sure way of killing a brand for good. In the automobile industry, brands aren’t dead yet, but everything is being done to kill them.