I read with great interest the James Surowiecki New Yorker article titled “Twilight of the Brands.” Surowiecki takes on the notion that brands are the most important assets that a company can have. He buttresses this argument with examples of powerhouse brands that have been taken down by a series of mishaps. Citing Lululemon’s failure to rebound from the fallout over the quality of their garments, the remarks from the company’s president implying that customers were too fat to wear the products, and an Ernst & Young study where “only twenty-five per cent of American respondents…said that brand loyalty affected how they shopped.”
I do not disagree with Surowiecki’s arguments, but I do take issue with his conclusions. I believe that consumers are more empowered than ever thanks to social media and are armed with more information than ever about a product or service before purchasing it. However, unlike Surowiekci, I believe that the role of branding is even more important for companies who want to not only make a splash, but retain their staying power among consumers. Here are my three main arguments that brands are not on the wane; provided of course, that they innovate, and keep product quality in line with their promises (because no amount of great branding can hide an inferior product or bad corporate practices).
The Exceptions to the Rule
Surowiekci does mention product categories where branding remains important, saying: “brands retain value where the brand association is integral to the experience of a product (Coca-Cola, say), or where they confer status, as with luxury goods.” This is no small segment! In fact, it seems that brands where “brand association is integral to the experience of a product” is an extremely broad category and could apply to just about every single established brand that we see yearly on the Interbrand charts. By this logic, Surowiekci argues that for current megabrands like Apple, Pepsi, and McDonald’s their branding efforts are not in vain but are clearly still important to their bottom line.
The age of information
Surowiecki sees megabrands as a relic from a time when consumers didn’t have access to the knowledge they have today. He states that today “consumers are supremely well informed and far more likely to investigate the real value of products than to rely on logos.” Again, I not only agree with this statement, but I think it is a good thing. An empowered consumer base can pressure a corporation to make positive changes in the way it operates (any doubters need only look to the famous Kit Kat dust-up spurred by Greenpeace).
That a pretty logo can no longer cover a multitude of corporate sins is a good thing. That corporations need to adapt to the age of transparency is a given. However, a brand isn’t just coverage for shoddy products. A well-designed logo, recognizable codes, and a unique experience still remain key in standing out from the crowd. This can help create loyalty, provided the brand has a good product and passable corporate ethics. Look at a brand likeVirgin America which although not even 10 years old, has managed to attract a new cohort of young business travelers, due in part to their distinct branding which includes viral safety videos, an iconic purple hued themed, and even hip cocktail lounges.
The challenge of loyalty
One truth that Suowiecki points out is that brand loyalty is not what it used to be. Indeed, even up to the 1980’s a vast majority of car owners stayed loyal to a brand for their entire lives. It is easier and easier for customers to comparison shop and subsequently, to jump ship, going to a different brand. However, this does not mean that a strong brand is unable to whether the storms of comparison shopping. When I look at the wild success that the American grocery store chain, Trader Joe’s has had over the past ten years, I cannot deny the importance of brand experience. Today it’s easier than ever to find inexpensive wine and specialty groceries online. Yet, Trader Joe’s, with it’s private label products like Joe-Joe cookies andTwo-Buck Chuck wine, have become cult items. What’s more, the company has stayed true to its manifesto of “fun, individual pride, and company spirit” – making it not only a commercial success, but also known for being one of the best workplaces in retail. Will Trader Joe’s be Walmart? Probably never, it attracts a cult following. But it’s distinctive logo, language, products, and experience goes to show how important branding remains today.
Despite my reservations about Surowiecki’s conclusion, this article is well worth a read. I think that never has it been more dangerous to be a brand: the slightest misstep or exaggeration can hasten a company’s downfall. However, as consumer categories become ever segmented, being able to stand out with iconic visual codes, a coherent language, and a unique experience can only help companies.
In the digital era, running a brand can no longer be reduced to writing brand values and creating a look and feel; but more than anything to crafting a brand’s experience (what we atBEING call Brand Behavior). From my point of view, this article shouldn’t be titled Twilight of the Brands but rather The Dawn of Brand Experience!