Brand Twilight

Earlier this year the Twitter sphere went all aflutter after James Surowiecki published a piece in The New Yorker called “Twilight of the Brands” in which he posited that brands are no longer as relevant in a world where consumers have all the product information in the universe at their fingertips. He writes:

“…brands have never been more fragile. The reason is simple: consumers are supremely well informed and far more likely to investigate the real value of products than to rely on logos. Absolute Value, a new book by Itamar Simonson, a marketing professor at Stanford, and Emanuel Rosen, a former software executive, shows that, historically, the rise of brands was a response to an information-poor environment.”

If you wanted to know what headphones or hot dogs to buy, it was important to be able trust that a brand would offer you a quality product. And in turn premium brands had great value because they could sell products at higher prices based on their reputation and not necessarily based on a better-quality product. Now, most companies cannot get away with that. Consumers are onto them and the price point of most products must be competitive.

The reaction to this article was universal – the defensive forces lined up to tweet and blog that the piece was wrong or misguided. Brands are alive and well and just as important as ever.

But if you are a brand or you work with brands, why not take the opposite view? Instead of being defensive about the power of brands, why not, at least as an exercise, contemplate the death of the brand.

If you knew the power of your brand was waning and that you could no longer rely on your reputation or your logo to drive marketing and sales, what would you do? And if you knew that the Internet in particular was a place where your products or services were most vulnerable and subject to the cold, hard scrutiny of the crowd, where your brand could offer very little protection, what would you change about the way you go to market?

I think anyone in this industry would be foolish not to take this contemplation seriously. Here’s what I’d want to do:

  1. Greet Every Customer With One Voice. With the power of brands waning, I’d want to make sure that my brand was firing on all cylinders. Finally integrate all aspects of the brand from offline to online. Tear down the internal walls within that keep that from happening. 
  2. Brands Are Personal. Brands are about the customer’s relationship to the product. They become part of people’s lives and it’s important to get in touch with that power. Take the opportunity to meet your best customers. Engage them in a dialogue to understand what they love about the products and services. Instead of spending all your time blasting out messages to everyone, take some time to build a sustained relationship with the people who already love you – your super consumers. They will tell you what’s working about your brand and help do your marketing for you. And if you ever get in a jam, their voice might be one of your most important defenses.
  3. Optimize All Digital Touch Points. Every touch online should be the best you can offer. Of course your own digital presences should be state-of-the-art – Web, mobile, and apps should be cohesive. If you’ve got products on Amazon, you should put the effort into making those, what are called, A+ pages – where there’s content and assets for customers to consider. Then literally optimize. This is digital: we measure, we improve, we repeat.
  4. The Time to Start Working on Your Reputation Is Now. While there may be many fine things your company does to be part of the community, are you getting that message out there? Your reputation strategy should be just as important as your brand strategy. All things being equal, customers will pick the products that come from companies that care. So put money in the bank of good will. Work at making these deposits as often as you can. It makes people who work for you feel good and it is something you can draw on when times are bad

By now you’ve probably figured out that I clearly don’t subscribe to the notion that brands are dead, and that’s not the point of the Surowiecki piece. But I do think it’s better to keep your eyes open to the changing influences of brands, because although this is a threat, it’s also an opportunity to work smarter and to engage customers in a new kind of relationship, where the playing field has been equalized.

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