It seems strange that a brand consultant such as myself would tell everyone that brands are dying, but I genuinely believe that we are in the middle of a significant cultural change. The brands that miss these changes and don’t adapt accordingly may not be around in a few years. It’s that serious. Get a coffee and a biscuit and read this carefully. It could just be the catalyst that encourages you to relate to your customers in a totally different way.
Brands Make Us Scared
The essence of successful branding is based upon fear. All the advertising, inspirational slogans and celebrity campaigns are all designed to make us feel like something is lacking in our life. We are not quite the person that we’d really like to be because we don’t have that particular product and it’s that fear of inadequacy that drives many of our buying decisions. Of course you can go to TopShop and buy a handbag that look’s like a Birkin, but you’ll never be like Kate Moss if you don’t go to Hermès and buy the genuine £6000 version.
I remember chatting to a designer from Ralph Lauren when I was doing some work on Savile Row and during a particularly dull show in London Fashion Week I asked why they went to such great lengths to showcase £20,000 dresses. In my ignorance I couldn’t understand why they would go to all that trouble when you never see anyone wearing such flamboyant creations in real life. In retrospect, the answer was obvious. They didn’t expect to sell more than half a dozen dresses, but what they did expect to happen was that the ‘halo effect’ would come into play.
In order words, most people can’t afford Ralph Lauren wardrobes, but they can afford a piece of the brand in the form of a perfume. That’s where the money is. The halo effect is basically the process of organically promoting part of your brand, by showcasing something else that is so aspirational that it is out of reach to most of us. Ford used to promote £200,000 Aston Martins. B&W sell £20,000 speakers. Remy Martin promote bottles of £20,000 Black Pearl Louis XIII brandy in order to sell more of the £50 Remy VSOP. Brands know that we want to be admired and respected by our peers, so they give us countless opportunities to satisfy our fear of inadequacy, by offering us cheaper products with the same logo on them.
The Best Brands Guarantee Dis-Satisfaction
Great brands are built on dissatisfaction. After all, if you were satisfied with your Revlon makeup or your Nike sneakers or your iPad, why would you buy another one? Satisfied means done, finished, I don’t need any more. In fact, most great commercial (and non-profit, and political) brands create a cycle of purchase based on ever-greater dissatisfaction with what we’ve got.
I have an unhealthy amount of vintage trainers. I have an iPhone 3GS which I love, but it already feels old because all my friends are flaunting iPhones 4’s. There’s nothing wrong with my 3GS. I just feel that I’m being left behind. Am I ever going to use ‘face time’ on an iPhone 4 to video chat with my friends? Probably not. But do I still want one? You betcha. I think it’s probably fair to say that your most unhappy customers are often your greatest source of learning. “Stop trying to make me unhappy!!!”
In the midst of last year’s heavy recession, Steve Jobs said,
“A lot of companies have chosen to downsize, and maybe that was the right thing for them. We chose a different path. Our belief was that if we kept putting great products In front of our customers, they would continue to open their wallets”.
Brands Are Worn Out
Michael Eisner of Disney has called the word brand “overused, sterile and unimaginative” and he’s right. When the brand manual grows bigger, heavier each year, you know you’re in trouble. When I was initially asked to do some work for Reebok with my illustrator friend James Walker, we were really excited about being involved with such an iconic brand and letting rip with our creative juices.
Sadly, our excitement soon wore off when we saw the length of the brand guidelines. We knew it wasn’t gong to be anywhere near as much fun as we thought, as the job became like a very boring jigsaw, just piecing all the various design components together. Looking back it doesn’t surprise me that Reebok, who once competed head on with Nike and Adidas, are now an also-ran as a sports brand.
Brands Are No Longer Mysterious
There is now much more of an anti-brand sentimentality as a result of various consumer movements and books like Naomi Klein’s infamous “No Logo”. When I was growing up in the late 80’s it was all about the label on your shirt. If you wore Sergio Taccini, Fila, Ellesse, Kappa or Cerutti you were the man, but when my (cool) friend Alan Steeple flaunted his logo-less rugby shirt, I began to notice the cultural shift, that it was becoming cool to not wear a logo.
“Companies are about their logos like guys are about their… you know. They love talking about them. They love to look at them. They want you to look at them. They think the bigger they are, the more effective they are. And they try to sneak looks at other guy’s logos when they can. But as any woman will tell you, nobody cares!” Luke Sulivan
There is more consumer awareness now and more people understand how brands work. More importantly, people understand how brands are supposed to work on them!
Brands Can’t Understand The New Breed Of Consumer
Consumer buying habits underwent a huge transformation in the 1960’s with the arrival of TV and the big advertising agencies promoting brands such as Proctor & Gamble, Ford and Kellogg’s, but until a few years ago not much had really changed. But then along came the internet and everything changed – from the way we connect with each other to the way we are entertained. Unfortunately, most brands haven’t changed in line with technology, thinking that a shiny website or multiple social media accounts will do the trick. It won’t.
The new customer is better informed, more critical, less loyal and harder to read. The white suburban housewife who for decades seemed to buy all the soap powder no longer exists. She has been joined by a new population of multi-generational, multi-ethnic, multi-national consumers.
Brands Hate Good Old-Fashioned Competition
The more designer brands and private labels we invent, the less we notice them as individuals. Most people are aware that we see over 4000 advertising messages a day, but on the average 45 minute supermarket shopping trip, you see over 45,000 brand names. How on earth are you ever going to get recognised as a new brand in that kind of market place? When I worked with Unilever, we estimated that in such a tough marketplace, you had on average 1.4 seconds to capture someone’s attention and make them pick your product off the shelf (instead of their usual choice of brand). If you are not number one or two, forget it.
More Brands Doesn’t Make It Any Easier
The greater the number of brands, the thinner the resources promoting them. Microsoft has 64 different sub-brands and they struggle to evenly allocate their $10billion marketing budget to each of them effectively. Compare that to Apple who spend the same amount but focus all their marketing efforts at just their core brand, and you can soon see exactly why Apple have overtaken Microsoft in the visibility stakes.
Brands Think Science Has The Answer
Most of the books on branding that I’ve read and the may brand workshops I’ve been to, all talk about the science of branding. The definitions, the charts, the diagrams and the SWOT analysis. All that stuff is important, but formulas have no imagination or empathy. The best brands tell stories and use emotion to communicate their messages, but there isn’t a formula that can deal with human emotion.
I recently worked with a very big FMCG food brand who’s advertising ideas were based upon analysis, demographics and Neilson ratings. They actually promoted accountants into brand management. No wonder they couldn’t understand why their campaigns weren’t working. Brands need to tell stories that make us feel something. Instead they were drowning in a sea of numbers, while some new start-up was working out of a bedroom somewhere, well on its way to stealing some of their market share.