November 9, 2004

why branding is dead

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Somebody sent me an e-mail asking why I thought "Branding is Dead".

"C'mon Hugh, it's not necessarily true just because you and Doc Searls say it is."

Well, I belive it to be true for a few reasons.

1. The term "Branding" was pretty meaningless when I started in advertising in the early 1990's. Ask six people to define what "Branding" is and you will get seven different answers. The longer I've been in the business, the truer this has become. Perhaps it's time to pull the plug.

2. "Branding" has no point other that to define the brand-metaphor. The actual business is secondary. In the end, it's in the business of changing the landscape in order to make the map more aesthetically pleasing to look at.

3. Branding asks the question "What is it?", when the question really should be "What is it for?"

4. "Branding" is backwards looking. It's all about capturing past associations. It's never about what the business could become, but protecting what came before.

5. "Branding" is all about articulating top-down, hierarchal control of the conversation. "This is what it means." It's EGOlogy, not ECOlogy.

6. I generally find people who like using the word "Brand" a lot are assholes.

7. I find the people who disagree with me the most are in the branding business themselves, and have no incentive to agree with me. In fact, quite the opposite.

8. I think the world is changing. I think branding-as-high-art serves the purpose of a reality that no longer exists.

9. Perhaps most importantly: Markets are conversations. The conversation I am having with my friend about your product is not "The Brand". It is a conversation between me and my friend. It's none of your frickin' business until I tell you it is.

[BONUS LINKS:] There's a great article in Wired on the subject. Also Cory over at BoingBoing has a few thoughts worth reading. Thanks to Dominik for e-mailing me the links.

Posted by hugh macleod at November 9, 2004 11:20 AM | TrackBack
Comments

Altho I agree that branding or brand as is commonly assumed - about aethetics, about logo - is an out of date concept I disagree strongly (http://www.psfk.com/2004/11/long_live_brand.html) with Surowiecki's article in Wired. Brands are in decline?? I doubt it. What 'branding' actually is does needs to be redefined, and maybe ideas like 'smarter conversations' or PSFK's 'experiences' helps the discussion towards finding such a solution.
P

Posted by: Piers Fawkes at November 9, 2004 2:59 PM

Hello Hugh

I do work in the branding business and I do agree with you! If you define branding as you do in your post, your absolutely right with everything you wrote. Branding like this is dead or at least should be vanished from the planet.

But still - and I really don't like the word branding - there's another point of you, what a brand really is there for. Take for example what Helen Rubinstein has to say about it:

"...the real focus for branding must be first on understanding the customers’ real needs, developing the service and product to meet these needs, defining the brand promise around them and then living up to that brand promise."

brands should never be backwards looking, but tell the people - as you say - what the product is for. Make a promise and keep up to it.
For me, the bradn itself is the key to the conversation between the companies and their stakeholders. It's like the common base for the conversation/discussion.
Could sound like this:
Company: "Hey, we know your problem and have a solution that's calles XYZ (the brand)."
Customer: "Nice, but your XYZ lacks ...., fix it and I like you more."
Company: "Ok, now we know better what you mean and will try."

Ok, it's an example from another planet (companies listening that precisely to its customers) but this is what brands are for, if you'd ask me. And branding is just the telling the people, what promise the company makes with its brand/product.

Posted by: Arnold Seefeld at November 9, 2004 3:01 PM

Damn. Love that "EGOlogy" thing.

Not surprising that branding is still so popular. People at the top of hierarchical structures have a perilous amount riding on retaining the hierarchy in all its forms.

"EGOlogy." Damn, that's good.

Posted by: Colleen at November 9, 2004 8:53 PM

I think the IT bubble is full of forensic evidence to validate your point.
The late 90s were all about companies that were high concept, but little or no product/market penetration; to paraphrase, they were "all brand, no cattle" - an apt metaphor, since it means there was plenty of branding iron but nothing to stick the brand on to.
That's a senseless activity, and the only thing it buys is flashy superbowl ads. Your point 2 would seem to be that all branding works like that, even when there IS something underneath you could apply the brand to.

Posted by: Dee at November 9, 2004 11:18 PM

Amen to number 6.

Posted by: Jonathan at November 9, 2004 11:55 PM

You said: 4. "Branding" is backwards looking. It's all about capturing past associations. It's never about what the business could become, but protecting what came before.

I agree with a poster above, this is just one way of looking at branding. When I was working at branding my dance company I quickly realised that branding for us had to mean, discovering our true identity, i.e. the essence of our goals and product, and letting people know about it as succinctly as possible. If we 'branded' ourselves something that we then did not fulfil, we were meaningless. I also made sure we were building a brand that could encompass everything we might become in the future.

I'm not a branding professional, I'm a choreographer, but these are the conclusions I reached. If I can think up this stuff, plenty of other people can.

Great blog though, thanks!

Posted by: nicola at November 10, 2004 2:00 AM

The problem with branding is NOT that it is EGOlogy, but that it is not. Branding should be about the ego of the consumer, not the ego of the brand.

Branding is often product-centric instead of consumer-centric. These days the needs, aspirations, interests, and perceptions of consumers fragment, coalesce, mutate, and vanish in a puff of smoke before the ink is dry on the logo. Brands need to be more plastic, elastic, and sticky, and that can only happen if they are tied to the consumer's mindsets rather than the product's attributes, and are designed to evolve.

EGOlogy? There is no second "i" in "branding". If there were it would be brainding, or maybe Brain Ding. (Imagines cartoon of lightbulb going off over a head to the ringing tone of a realizational "Ding!!!").

But maybe that's what it is all about anyway: engineering a sticky Pavlovian reaction in the mind of the consumer through an evolving series of tactile, sensory, and experiential triggers, and making sure they are reinforced by a product that delivers.

Godfrey Parkin
http://parkinslot.blogspot.com

Posted by: Godfrey Parkin at November 10, 2004 2:44 PM

This comment relates to the Wired article, The Decline of Brands:

The author lacks a fundamental understanding of what makes a brand successful. Therefore, the conclusion that consumers have become "fickle" is erroneous. In fact, consumers have *always* been fickle. The real problem is that most big brands make critical blunders that erode their value, and therefore consumers turn to other brands.

Using Coke as an example, with each new version (a.k.a. line extension) of Coke the real meaning of Coke is degraded, and spread thinner among a multi-range of products. Coke used to be "The real thing," but how can it possibly make that claim with a straight face now given all of its many incarnations. Are each of these Coke spin-off flavors the real thing? Hardly, and subconsciously consumers know this. Coke has shot their own brand in the foot. I have recently noticed that Coke, who changes their slogan yearly (another blunder), now uses the tagline "Real." And I ask them, which of their numerous flavors is the real one?

From the article:
-- "Even as companies have spent enormous amounts of time and energy introducing new brands and defending established ones, Americans have become less loyal."

Again, we only become less loyal when pushed in that direction, and that's the hideous side-effect of line extensions. (Which, btw, MOST people in the marketing business refuse to understand, and thus they keep going down the road of making more and more line extensions.)

-- "A brand is supposed to provide a haven from competition, offering what Nokia CEO Jorma Ollila calls insurance against missteps."

Nokia is killing its own brand, too. For example, the n-Gage was a horrible branding boo-boo. What the hell is Nokia doing trying to compete with Nintendo in the video game market?! Silly fools. Brands stay strong until their owner gets big-headed and tries to widen the meaning of the brand, a mistake most companies with successful brands tend to make.

We've always been fickle consumers, and if brands give us a reason to jump ship, we're gone in a flash.

Posted by: Scott Miller at November 10, 2004 2:44 PM

Brand advocacy?
Brand equity?

Brand Ptooey!

Posted by: chadvavra at November 10, 2004 2:59 PM

OK. So I agree Markets are conversations, and I agree with you on dinosaur speak. Now you've destroyed my preconceptions:

Are you advocating and advertising-free world?

If not, how should modern copy be written? More specifically, how should your example plug (in the previous entry) actually read?

Cheers
Zornhau

Posted by: zornhau at November 10, 2004 3:17 PM

Zornhau,

HONESTLY.

Posted by: chadvavra at November 10, 2004 4:14 PM

The truth comes out. Your thoughts prove amazingly refreshing. I was in advertising for 10 years, rising up to a Creative Director. Yet, I have always seen branding applied much like the emperors new clothes. Too much hype and too little substance. In essence, branding as it is in true form must be about bottom lines and forging new markets. Protecting old ones are merely staying on the same spot and making sure others do not get there. What's the point? Branding in true essence must involve ensuring your product stays relevant and coming out with new ones to fit your customers. Branding is a mindset, not a 60 second spot.

Posted by: Mack Zulkifli at November 10, 2004 7:02 PM

re "branding". Isn't that what that Nazi dude did to Beecher on "OZ"?????

p.s. Never watch OZ late at night, you may dream of Keller. :)

Posted by: Jon at November 11, 2004 2:54 AM

Bloody hell, you're right aren't ya. That's what we should do do the little brand messiah's in gold cufflinks hitching a ride on the tube with FusionBranding under their arm. LOL

Posted by: Mack at November 11, 2004 9:56 AM

You're right about conversations, but forget that these need to be multi-directional. You describe the conversation as if it only takes place between stakeholders other than the (ex?) brand owner. In reality, the brand owner will (or should) have something to say and a view on the issues that affect the market. Their statements will be made in the name of the brand and need to be consistent. If anyone can speak for the brand, then it will become like the worst politicians; saying whatever people want it to say just to be popular. And it will experience similar levels of (mis-)trust.

Posted by: Stephen Newton at November 11, 2004 1:18 PM

My comments to each point:

"1. The term "Branding" was pretty meaningless when I started in advertising in the early 1990's. Ask six people to define what "Branding" is and you will get seven different answers. The longer I've been in the business, the truer this has become. Perhaps it's time to pull the plug."

This only means that marketing professions are generally sorely mis-educated. This is not news.

"2. "Branding" has no point other that to define the brand-metaphor. The actual business is secondary. In the end, it's in the business of changing the landscape in order to make the map more aesthetically pleasing to look at."

Huh? There's too much marketing speak here for me to even understand what he's saying.

"3. Branding asks the question "What is it?", when the question really should be "What is it for?"

Actually, branding answers the question: "Why buy me?" It's the most important question in business.

"4. "Branding" is backwards looking. It's all about capturing past associations. It's never about what the business could become, but protecting what came before."

Branding is built from history and tradition. That's what makes it powerful in the present and future.

"5. "Branding" is all about articulating top-down, hierarchal control of the conversation. "This is what it means." It's EGOlogy, not ECOlogy."

Branding should never try to control the conversation. Branding is about giving people a reason to have a conversation in the first place, by being important in their lives. That's the best you can hope for. People will then honestly discuss the merits and faults of the brand, based on the brand's history.

"6. I generally find people who like using the word "Brand" a lot are assholes."

No comment.

"7. I find the people who disagree with me the most are in the branding business themselves, and have no incentive to agree with me. In fact, quite the opposite."

No comment.

"8. I think the world is changing. I think branding-as-high-art serves the purpose of a reality that no longer exists."

Are there people who mistakenly think of branding as a high art?!

Posted by: Scott Miller at November 11, 2004 1:52 PM

At Collaborate Marketing we are very wary of anyone who tries to bring complexity to the idea of branding. For us, it's simply about clear and engaging communication and its management. We all know that people who express themselves clearly tend to attract attention and achieve more. Branding is just those qualities transposed to companies and products. Straightforward in theory but tricky in practice.

What is interesting is the way in which branding is changing in a digital world. Your comment about conversations is spot on. At Collaborate we believe the big change is that consumers have greater influence in all aspects of marketing and sometimes have more control over a brand than the company that owns it.

Posted by: James Cherkoff at November 11, 2004 3:29 PM

""Why buy me?" It's the most important question in business."

It only is if you think it is, Scott ;-)

I was reading down your list of counter-arguments to myself, going "Yeah, I used to think that also."

Godspeed!

Posted by: hugh macleod at November 11, 2004 4:30 PM

Hugh's real error is to think marketing is selling. The difference is that marketed brands are already created in collaboration with the consumer.

Posted by: Stephen Newton at November 11, 2004 5:55 PM

Hugh's real error is to think marketing is selling. The difference is that marketed brands are already created in collaboration with the consumer.

Posted by: Stephen Newton at November 11, 2004 5:56 PM

Hugh's real error is to think marketing is selling. The difference is that marketed brands are already created in collaboration with the consumer.

Posted by: Stephen Newton at November 11, 2004 5:57 PM

"Hugh's real error is to think marketing is selling."

Heh. As if.

Posted by: hugh macleod at November 11, 2004 5:59 PM

I was born and raised in the US but now work and live in Colombia S.A

When I go to the store here I see a lot of things I have never herd of so when I see something like Coke I buy it, I know what it is and what it taste like.

Branding is still an important part of any business.

Thats why you make a logo and give your business a name.

Posted by: Tom at November 15, 2004 12:56 AM

There used to be an economy that favoured one type of product for each purpose, sealed and approved by the government.
There was no point in becoming like the capitalist adversary and endorse a free market.

Well, this economy did not succeed. Instead we have to live in a world were the best ideas have a chance of being discovered by consumers.

Oh by the way, they distinguish themselves with little logos that summarize their attributes,utilitarian and emotional, which are either appealing or not. But that is up to the individual consumer to decide.

Posted by: Thor at November 15, 2004 1:09 PM

It just seems to me like you're talking about BAD branding, not branding in general. Consumers are getting smarter about the products they buy, so they see through misleading and hollow branding. The effectiveness of bad branding IS on the decline.

A good brand is just an outward manifestation of the core values and mission statement of a good, focused company. As long as the company knows what their core values are, the brand can never NOT exist. It flows out effortlessly in every decision the company makes based on their values.

Word of mouth and bottom up marketing may be the best way to capture a market, but does that mean companies should never attempt to communicate to their customers? If you are wary about companies trying to take part in a conversation about their own products then the problem is more a general mistrust in corporate America over their lies and misuse of branding, rather than with branding as a concept.

Posted by: Tim at November 15, 2004 8:58 PM

OK, so its the product, not the brand.

But the products need a name and packaging.

The appearance of many products are vital elments to them. A good restraunts presentation of its food is almost as much a part of the dining experience as the taste of the food.(But you need both)

And to get somebody to try teomehing you need to get in front of them. You need a retailer to trust you to shelf space...which might be based part on proven history of high enough quality and logistical abilty to provide them, and part based on there peception of the desire of customers to have the product. If a consumer goes to a store and aren't offered something they expected the store suffers.

If a person defines a brand as "loyalty" perhaps there isn't nearly a premium like there used to be. But if you define brand as "reputation" I think you've still got something important.

You need a good "reputation" but generally "reputaion" these days is a current not a historical perception. The perception of the product can't stray far from its actual quality, but a quality product that carry's a poor perception won't get very far.

I think a Brand these days has more to do with "looking qualified" rather than "looking superior".

Posted by: tom norian at November 15, 2004 11:14 PM

Great post. Great comments. Sorry I'm so late to the party.

I've always told my clients to forget what everyone else says about "branding". Our goal is simple: Be the company that people think of first and feel best about when the need for your product or service arises.

We can achieve this position in as many minds as the budget allows. HOWEVER, You had better not let them down when they try your stuff or you'll be at the top of the list with a big red line through your name.

All the other crap about brands is the lipstick on the pig.

Nice meeting you Hugh.

Posted by: Dave Young at November 16, 2004 2:02 PM

Word to #3 and #6

Posted by: Hot Sauce at November 25, 2004 10:31 PM

Maybe branding is dying because it doesnt generate enough ROI to justify it relative to the ROI associated with other existing and emerging alternatives such as enhancing product quality, improving customer support or conversationalizing the company.

Posted by: MarkN at November 26, 2004 5:18 AM

Hugh:

I take issue with point #6: "I generally find people who like using the word "Brand" a lot are assholes"

After working in this industry for too many years, it's been my experience that 97% of people in marketing and advertising are flaming assholes and nearly all of them like using the word "Brand."

Posted by: Keith at November 27, 2004 2:04 AM

The funny thing about this argument is that it is irrelevant what we think. "Brand" is a word that represents a nebulous concept, like "personality." Is it possible for personalities to be dead, out of style, or unimportant? Of course not. If there are people, there are personalities. That's how we navigate our social universe. For brands to be dead, so must businesses die. Even then, we still remember the personality of Enron.

As for "branding," you could compare that to self-improvement. Can you truly say that human beings should stop trying to improve their personality or their chosen way of viewing and interacting with the world? OF COURSE NOT. The fact is that branding is this same activity applied to business: who are we? who do we want to be? what's important to us?

College students can do this over beers at the local pub. Businesses may need to sit down with an engaging consultant (therapist) and talk it out a bit.

Where does all this brand anger come from anyway???

A

Posted by: Aaron Dignan at December 13, 2004 6:52 PM