Thursday, May 05, 2011

Is Branding Yesterday , Passe , Dead?

4PS B&M Consulting Editor Endeavours to Unravel a new-age, Revolutionary, Path-Breaking Philosophy put forth by an Ad Guru that Puts The Age-old and much-revered concept of Branding to Sleep… Well, at Least if you Believe us Blindly !

Branding, for decades, has been hymned, celebrated, exalted, venerated and worshipped as the gospel truth by any marketer worth his FMCG lapels! The high priests have pronounced that the ‘Brand’ is ‘God’ and the ad executives, GCROEs (God’s Chosen Representatives On Earth!). For decades, the ‘brand’ has been acknowledged as the single most important aspect of business. Its success equals the business it drives. Branding’s prime objective remains the same – to make a product look distinct & different from competition and epitomise the vision & values it represents to gain that decisive cutting-edge lead.

The textbooks, to gloat over it, pronounce its value, power and criticality in no uncertain terms. Author Sanjay Tiwari in his much acclaimed book (The Uncommon Sense Of Advertising – Getting The Basics Right) offers his informed take in style: “Brands rule the world of marketing today because they rule the world of consumers today. They have not only changed the way we shop & buy, or consume, but have also had a profound effect on the way we live. Just count the number of brands you interact with since getting up in the morning till you sleep in the night.”

For some of us, he says, it might be more than the number of people we interact with in the same time. We don’t drive cars any more; we drive our Mercedes, Hondas & Toyotas. We don’t wear shirts, jeans or sneakers, but wear our Arrows, Allen Solleys, Levis, Wranglers, Nikes & Reeboks. We don’t drink cola, eat chips, burgers & chocolates, rather we drink our Cokes & Pepsis, eat our Ruffles, Pringles, McBurgers & Kit Kats. The brands that promise us a unique offer of utilities, benefits, values, personality traits, images and associations, that will satisfy our given needs (functional or emotional) and that we can relate to (consciously or subconsciously), are the ones that we identify with and show preference for. Therefore, more often than not, the brand (and its promise) extends beyond the product core. Successful brands often transcend their physical existence, take on a life and build relationship with their consumers. The positive experiences, values & associations that consumers perceive the brand brings to them leads to fulfilment of their expectations. The feeling of fulfilment becomes the reason for the success of the brand, and the basis for the relationship.

Ultimately, building brands is about running a marathon. And it makes huge business sense to invest in brand building. In fact, strong, reputed brands have a lasting bond with their consumers. Their brand loyalty is very difficult to break. The loyal consumer base raises the entry barriers for the competition and enables the company to enjoy benefits like premium pricing and sustained market share over longer periods of time. All these put together result in the brand being able to leverage in equity with the consumers and reap long-term profits for the company.

Chris Jaques, the founder of Spark Innovation Consulting, which specialises in developing innovation strategies to ignite specific business areas, however pooh-poohs this entire gyan and aggressively gives a clinically chronicled 5-point rationale. He believes that the days of branding being the prime discipline to communicate the consistency of a given product and the reliability of its promise, are clearly over. There’s been a paradigm shift in the Market-Product-Consumer connect with the money now going into ‘services’, not products. He supports it with hard facts. “Walmart’s revenues are three times more than the entire revenue of both P&G and Unilever combined! Citibank & ING, too, are twice their size. This is the age of ‘Service’ not ‘Products’ and service marketing requires a totally different set of rules. Services are customised, not mass-produced,” Jaques tells 4Ps B&M. Jaques argues that most of today’s real killer brands are built on concepts, not products.

One example is how Apple produced the iPod with iTunes. First, they commissioned an idea and a design from IDEO. Next, they bought chips from Motorola and put them in a casing from Foxconn. Then they hired developers to create music software. At another level, agents were going tongs n’ hammer negotiating access to content, which incidentally was created by publishers and artistes. Apple only ‘packaged’ it all together, managed it and sold it. It produced nothing!”

But it’s not as if this ‘branding is dead’ doomsday call is new; and it’s not as if it has been accepted by a majority. Tom Barnes, CEO of Mediathink, in response to the ‘branding is dead’ question, once wrote, “Branding will never die – it’s the tools and the means by which we typically use them to achieve the goal of branding that are, in fact, obsolete.” Mark Twain went one better: “The rumours of the death of branding have been greatly exaggerated.” Yet, the rumours just never went away. Jonathan S. Baskin, the author of Branding only works on cattle, writes, “There’s an ugly truth we need to admit: brands are dead, and it’s time for marketers to admit it. Nobody carries brands around in their heads. Nobody has a relationship with a brand.”

In summary, coming back to the Jaques philosophy, if a brand is predictable today, it is most likely to be dead, tomorrow! Apparently, Disney develops a new product every five minutes! Sony produces around 5,000 new products a year. Zara can translate a fashion design from the Paris Catwalk to the shelves in 15 days. Even if one wants to create a predictable brand message over time, one can’t. Why? Because there are over 50 million blogs, 24x7, flashing out messages about brands. These messages are based on customer experience, personal agenda or social rumour not strategic positioning! As Jaques says, brand terrorism is a deadly fact, alive & kicking with China being a soft target. The triclosan gossip savaged their soap & toothpaste sales. Chenggang’s nationalist blog shut down Starbucks in the Forbidden City. In today’s marketscape, business is the brand and brand is the business. The brand is absorbed, imbued & encompassed in every conceivable experience that the consumer experiences – and therefore, in effect, every action a company takes.

Yes, for every Justin Timberlake who is past his prime, we have a Justin Bieber to take his place. But there was only one Michael Jackson. In conclusion, what it means is that those companies that believe their products would sell simply based on their brand, would be the first to reach their doom. As said earlier, Apple is perhaps ‘the’ greatest current technology brand – and even it doesn’t believe purely in the power of its brand; then why should you make that mistake?


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