Brands arent only company properties. They are
relationships. If a brand isnt a reference point for
customers, its 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 arent 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, isnt
the identity of a product or service. Its 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 wasnt a
dream or a misunderstanding. Its 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 doesnt mean
that all brands should become symbols of attitude or
allegiance. That makes them shallow and, over time,
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 dont agree with Naomi Klein and the no
logo movement. The problem isnt that goods or services
are branded. Its that brands arent held responsible, as
often as they should, for what they do (or for what they
dont). 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 arent there, or their meaning is
blurred, its 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 dont 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 doesnt deserve trust and respect.
The problem isnt 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 collectors item?).
In an affluent society and economy there is
lots of room for goods and services that arent basic
necessities. There is nothing wrong with that. Its
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
and fashion. All sorts of human values
(and realities) are out of focus in that environment. Its 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 dont 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.