October 20, 2004

branding is dead

cheap plastic toys.jpg

Doc Searls and I were talking last night:

Ever notice that the companies that tolerate, and even encourage, blogging... also suck at branding? I mean, they succeed as companies. Meaning, they market well, in their own special ways. But their advertising has never been award-winning stuff. They don't hire expensive agencies and employ Professionals who Manage The Brand. Companies that rock at branding (by which I mean, they do really good, award-winning advertising).... Apple... Sony... Coke... Anheuser-Busch... Nike... Gap... aren't known for their bloggers.
That's easy enough to explain. Blogging is all about ECO-logy. Branding is all about EGO-logy. The two are not compatible. Which is why brand-wimpy Microsoft has hundreds of bloggers [a well-known fact], and why you can get fired for blogging at uber-brand Apple [so I've been told].

Apple like the conversation they're currently having. They don't want it to change, internally or externally. They want to control the means of conversation.

I've seen branding work. I've seen blogging work. My conclusion?

Branding is dead.

Holy Shit.

Branding. Is. Dead.

We thought just marketing and advertising were dead. Nope. Branding kicked the bucket, too.

Dead, dead, and dead.

Holy shit.

(Yeah, that "cheap plastic toys" cartoon is up there for a reason. Heh)

Posted by hugh macleod at October 20, 2004 1:07 PM | TrackBack

It has much to do with the consumers just not trusting the things behind the brand. When Coke and Pepsi decide to finally have some blog, I wonder if it will be too late for them. Or it will look REALLY watered down. And no one likes a watered down Coke.

Another thing... These companies, the branded ones, they're just not really interesting to the consumers and REAL people out there. They buy something to drink because they're thirsty. Not because "they fucking LOVE coke!" -- I don't think companies like that, the giant companies, I think it might be too late for them to have the type of evangelists you've been talking about.

But for the new thinkers... the sky seems to be the limit.

Posted by: DJ Coffman at October 20, 2004 1:34 PM

Im confused by all this blogging revolution? Excuse my ignorance but isnt it just a chat room with a theme?

Posted by: SLJ at October 20, 2004 3:17 PM

this reminds me of a song by Neil Young
"this note's for you".

Ain't singin' for Pepsi
Ain't singin' for Coke
I don't sing for nobody
Makes me look like a joke
This note's for you.

a quote from
"this note's for you" on the "lucky 13" CD (Geffen '93).
see link for complete lyrics.

Posted by: pheloxi at October 20, 2004 3:24 PM

Not exactly, although as with any new thing, people infatuated with it tend to see things more black and white then they really are.

Posted by: Marko at October 20, 2004 3:28 PM

Well your still batting in the 900s in my books, but this particular post... Its been said that branding as a term is nearly dead, noone seems to know what it means.

You're saying companies that are great at branding do award winning advertising. Last I looked the Ipod ads are alive and well, and Apple is doing fine by them. As for Microsoft sucking at branding - I disagree. They've been very successful putting their name out, the trouble is, their historical WIndows OS problems, their multibilliondollar profits and negative, anticompetitive practices in the marketplace have taken huge chunks out of the name; pushing it further at the public has probably been calculated as a bad idea for now. It would probably just increase the public's contempt. Better to get into the blogging thing, and hey, its cheap too.

Information design is changing, and blogging is part of that change. As Cluetrain said, "Marketing" aint the top-down force-feed that it used to be . Its not enough to read about the immutable laws of branding or marketing or anything else for that matter. In a rapidly chaning world, there's no replacement for fresh thinking.

I dont think advertising is dying, I think whats happening is that bullshit marketing is dying. In a world where access to products and information cant be rigorouosly, centrally controlled, the suckholes, sociopaths and hucksters in marketing are having to shape up and find new ways to entertain and annoy people.

Posted by: John at October 20, 2004 5:39 PM

OK- then DON'T believe me ;-)

Posted by: hugh macleod at October 20, 2004 5:50 PM

I work for company that's all about branding and you're right, no one here blogs in an externally-visbible fashion (I have an internal weblog but only those inside the firewall can see it). As a matter of fact, there's so much bureaucracy, I'm not even sure who to ask about doing something like that.

Posted by: Tom at October 20, 2004 5:55 PM

You're making an assumption that brandng is all about advertising so that if you do shitty advertising you're not branding. Nothing can be further from the truth, in my opinion. Branding is what your customers ultimately decide you are as a brand. You're a brand even if you don't think you're a brand, only the business you get defines what kind of brand you are. Award winning advertising doesn't mean squat if you attract people in the door and the staff pisses in their boots. The assumption you make that everything is dead is also suspect. Nothing really dies, it just morphs and shitty marketing, advertising, PR and the like goes by the wayside as customers vote with their feet and take their word-of-mouth to the marketplace. Company blogs can either aid your brand or hurt it depending on the customer experience it blends with because ultimately no matter how thin you slice it, it's still baloney. Merci beaucoup.

Posted by: Alain Jourdier at October 20, 2004 5:56 PM

Dead, dead, and dead. Ha!

Posted by: hugh macleod at October 20, 2004 5:59 PM

Branding used to be a form of "reputation system" - people bought a brand because it had a good reputation. For some companies,however, that seemed to mean "we've sucked them in, now we can relax" - cases in point: mid-70s GM cars, New Coke, bad versions of Windows.

What has killed branding is the ease and speed with which bad (or good) information about products can spread. Marketing may be a conversation with customers, but blogging and other forms of quick communication (SMS/MMS, IM, etc) are more like gossip about Suzie in Accounting and Bob in Shipping. Which do you think spreads faster?

Posted by: Tim at October 20, 2004 6:29 PM

Big 'B' Branding (the vibe you want associated with your product/service) without substance is dead. can't get away with it anymore. doesn't mean you can't overcharge for said substance (e.g. Apple), but you still have to have a good amt of heft nonetheless.

It occurred to me that some companies who allow blogging feel they need to (e.g. Microsoft. I mean, imagine the hue and cry throughout blogdom if it ever got out that Microsoft was banning blogs....exactly). Some others might be smart to avoid it cuz it might come off cheesy (like, who cares about a Coke or Gap blogger? eesh). Just depends on the circumstances.

Posted by: memer at October 20, 2004 7:50 PM

"I mean, imagine the hue and cry throughout blogdom if it ever got out that Microsoft was banning blogs....exactly). Some others might be smart to avoid it cuz it might come off cheesy (like, who cares about a Coke or Gap blogger? eesh). Just depends on the circumstances."

Good point, Memer... though nobody seems to mind that Apple (allegedly) bans blogging.

I heard the allegation from a pretty reliable source.... but I'd like it confirmed from another party. Anybody?

Posted by: hugh macleod at October 20, 2004 8:12 PM

Unfortunately, your whole premise is wrong. There ARE Apple employees who blog about company issues, with official sanction. Dave Hyatt and Bill Bumgarner come to mind, I could probably dig up a few others.

Posted by: Charles at October 21, 2004 4:33 AM

You should check out Dave Hyatt's blog, Surfin Safari, you might be surprised. He's the lead developer for the Safari browser. Hyatt constantly experiments with visual features on his blog, Safari supports new HTML extensions that are not supported in most browsers, so he plays with them and solicits feedback, and offers multiple style sheets so you can change the blog's visual appearance. He doesn't update the blog often, but has a vigorous discussion on most topics, with extensive trackbacks.

Posted by: Charles at October 21, 2004 5:08 PM

In my opinion and experience, there is a difference between a brand and branding. The former is determined by the market. The latter is an entire industry built around the "manufacture of consent" theories of the early 20th century.

"Brand management" is an oxymoron, because it assumes a brand is determined from the top-down. It isn't. In that sense, branding is not only dead; it was never alive.

Transparency is replacing blue smoke and mirrors, and I think this is the real issue here. We're drowning in marketing in the U.S., and the lifeboat is that wonderful, bottom-up place we call the Internet.

Posted by: Terry Heaton at October 21, 2004 5:59 PM

yeah... what Alain said!

I've been noticing on a number of blogs that kids don't say "I went out for coffee," or "I shopped for some socks," they say, "I went to Starbucks," or "I was at Target," as if those brands help define them. And maybe they do.

I was out to dinner last week and stepped outside for a smoke. There's a great little indie coffee shop one block south and a Starbucks three blocks north of where I'm standing. A young couple comes out of the pizza joint next door and he says, let's go over to to Crazy Mocha. She says, no, let's go to Starbucks. He says, why - they have better over here and it's closer. She says, yeah, but it's not Starbucks. And so they headed north.

We have a new generation gap. It's not wired vs. unwired. It's followers vs. leaders.

Brand may be stronger than ever.

Posted by: RichW at October 22, 2004 2:51 AM

I agree with Rich w. Kids and people don't describe things generically they often talk through brands. And people like to define themselves through brands.

Apple is successful, I suggest because, the iPod revolutionised the way we consumed music, and created meaning and context and delivered a great user experience. The purpose of the ads for iPod which are as iconic as the product, reinforce that great user experience.

There is a lot of bollocks written about brands. What we have witnessed is the fragmentation of media, the empowerment of the consumer and a ever increasing documentation on both sides of the atlantic of the failure of interruptive communications.

For sure brands are not in control as they once were, and recognise, well the smart ones recognise that, they have to put the customer at the beginning of the value chain and not at the end. Customers these days are more promiscuous. And might even argue that communities dominate brands?

In 5 years time marketing/brand - communications will look very different. Marketers worth their salt must recognise this and act decisively, helping their clients become relevant again. Post-Big Brother, it is obvious that people want to interact with brands, even co-create them.

Conventional branding, image advertising, the new junk mail of the 21st Century. TV advertising the silent movie of the 21st Century. The days of the breathless hype of Madison Avenue or over. Blogging, moblogging, vlogging, the mobile phone, iinteractive TV, and Tivo have all contributed to this.

The message couldn't be simpler for any business. Engage or die.

Posted by: alan moore at October 22, 2004 2:22 PM

Sorry John, I'm not sure if you're free or a social lemming.

Of course branding is dead. In fact it was never alive, it was just P & G's differentiated name for marketing .

I wnet through business school in the mid 80s and it was never mentioned as a verb. It's just in the past decade that it became a ubiquitous term to justify the extortionate invoices of people classifying themselves as brand consultants or the enhancement of the balance sheet by monetising intanagible assets.

Posted by: john (unbranded/untatooed) at October 26, 2004 10:16 PM

Sorry John, I'm not sure if you're free or a social lemming.

Of course branding is dead. In fact it was never alive, it was just P & G's differentiated name for marketing .

I went through business school in the mid 80s and it was never mentioned as a verb. It's just in the past decade that it became a ubiquitous term to justify the extortionate invoices of people classifying themselves as brand consultants or the enhancement of the balance sheet by monetising intangible assets.

Posted by: john (unbranded/untatooed) at October 26, 2004 10:18 PM

sure branding is dead but don't you just love cheap mass manufactured plastic toys
because they take some generic idea of cuteness (usually from an asian perspective)
reproduce it in plastic and hey it defies all idea of branding and goes straight for consumer experience,

Posted by: basil at November 4, 2004 2:40 PM

Hugh - I normally love your stuff, and I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, but on this one I just don't get it. Remembering that I had read it on your site, I flippantly commented to my wife (a marketing student) that "branding is dead". When she very politely challenged me on that statement, I found that I could not substantiate it. So I came back here looking for your supporting arguments, and found that there aren't any.

Microsoft doesn't need to brand because they are a monopoly. If you want to discuss the dichotomy between Apple (well branded) and Microsoft (weakly branded), you have to take into account that Microsoft is branded *by proxy* as the alternative to Apple - even though they don't need that branding by virtue of the fact that they really don't face any real competition.

None of the companies that Doc named as being well branded appear to me in any danger of going out of business, and all of them are supported by their well recognized brands.

So, please explain where exactly branding is dead, and why? Sorry, but I just can't accept "because Doc and Hugh say so" as a good enough answer.

Thanks for the great blog!

Posted by: Jason at November 6, 2004 7:42 PM

Branding isn't the least bit dead. The problem is that, more often than not, the brander forgets the most important fact of all when it comes to advertising: the product IS the brand.

Companies talk about branding in terms of advertising. Advertising helps to create the image of what the product IS, but, once someone has sampled the product, they decide what the product really is. You can tell someone that a product is the best thing ever, but once someone tries it and decides that it's crap, branding becomes more akin to lying.

Posted by: Jalpuna! at November 9, 2004 7:36 PM

To me "Brands" are what people think, "branding" is thinking about what people do/might think and attempting to get people to think favourably. This has always existed and will never go away, the terms used may change though ;O)

Posted by: Chris Garrett at November 19, 2004 3:56 PM