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Brand decay

September 2002

disponibile anche in italiano

  Giancarlo Livraghi
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Brands aren’t only company properties. They are relationships. If a brand isn’t a reference point for customers, it’s worthless. There are well-known brands that are still very strong, with a clear meaning. And there are new ones that, in a few years, have gained a strong identity. But the role and performance of brands is blurred.

One of the problems, of course, is mergers and acquisitions. Corporate cultures aren’t easily merged, often they are simply destroyed. Brands become empty shells. People may still remember well-known names, but they lose track of what they stand for.

But there is also a vagueness, a hazy limbo of indistinct “images”. A brand name, some people think, isn’t the identity of a product or service. It’s a state of mind. People want to “belong”, they want to “share in the experience”. What a brand delivers (quality, performance, service) is irrelevant. Products and services are all the same, the only distinction is a mood or a feeling associated with a name or an image.

Such strategies can be successful, for a while, if and when a brand has no real competition (or all competitors play the same game of emptiness). But they lose sight of their foundations. Their weak roots and poorly maintained structures can crumble when someone pushes a wedge of reality into one of the cracks.

Over twenty years ago, when studies were made and books were published about the emerging age of information, there was widespread agreement that we were heading for “customer empowerment”. That the balance of power was shifting from the seller to the buyer. That wasn’t a dream or a misunderstanding. It’s a fact. But many companies fail to understand it – or are doing all they can to confuse the issue. They seem to believe that brands can “own” people – that customers can “belong” to brands.

In some product categories, and for a while, people sometimes use garments or other items to express a feeling or an attitude or to be part of a group. That can, at times, develop sales of a product or a brand. But that doesn’t mean that all brands should become symbols of attitude or allegiance. That makes them shallow and, over time, meaningless.

A view of brands as generic and overpowering “identities”, unrelated to product quality or service performance, is shared by superficial brand enthusiasts and by extreme critics of the “brand” notion.

I don’t agree with Naomi Klein and the “no logo” movement. The problem isn’t that goods or services are branded. It’s that brands aren’t held responsible, as often as they should, for what they do (or for what they don’t). When brands have a clear and precise meaning, they can be rewarded or punished. By customers for the quality of goods and service, by society as a whole for corporate behavior. When brands aren’t there, or their meaning is blurred, it’s much more difficult to understand who is doing what. There is nothing to be gained for anyone (except crooks) in a brandless, nameless world in which the power of concentrated interests (financial, political, cultural etcetera) would continue but would be less visible and therefore much more difficult to control.

We don’t need less branding. In many situations we need more – or more precise and specific. In a complex world of “global” trade we need to know who does what, who deserves to be rewarded for good products, good services and overall fairness – and who doesn’t deserve trust and respect.

The problem isn’t that some branded products are “superfluous” – or that some things are bought for reasons that have little to do with their basic function (is a wristwatch a tool to tell time, a piece of jewelry, a fashion accessory or a collector’s item?).

In an “affluent” society and economy there is lots of room for goods and services that aren’t “basic necessities”. There is nothing wrong with that. It’s part of human nature to want more that mere survival. Non material values, such as freedom, information and education, are as essential as food, water and health care. In all cultures (rich or poor) people want some form of entertainment and fun. The problem arises when everything becomes appearance and substance becomes irrelevant.

In other articles I wrote about “carnevalization” and fashion. All sorts of human values (and realities) are out of focus in that environment. It’s happening also to brands. They are losing identity and relevance, they are offering “moods” instead of product or service qualities. People may be amused (though the obsessive repetition of the same clichés is quite boring) but brand identities are evaporating.

There is real and increasing room for a change of tone and manner – and substance. There are great opportunities for those companies (large or small) that have sound and interesting qualities to offer and really care about their customers. For brands that don’t just add to the noise but make real promises – and keep them. That, of course, includes using the internet as a tool for reliable information and good service – not just empty imagery.


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