Brands—So What?


The demise of brands has been greatly exaggerated. One consultancy stated that for consumer packaged goods “brands are dissolving and identities are becoming blurred.”  As the Internet enabled people to exchange information directly about products and services, the need for brands was predicted to fade. The Internet exploded with new ways to share information but brands didn’t die; they just kept gaining utility and value. Brands are an essential reference point for our world. They’re not just beer and cars. They’re the markers we use to make sense of life.

To follow the logic, broaden your perception of what a brand can be. Brands don’t have to be objects. Like him or not, you can thank the current American president for making this very clear. Trump is most certainly a brand, functioning on multiple touchpoints in your life. Sure, Nike is a brand.  But so is New York City. Even brands alleged not to be brands are brands, like store brands. Amazon batteries aren’t unbranded. Get it?

Advertising guru David Ogilvy thought of brands as complex symbols with advertising being one component. British marketing sage Jeremy Bullmore described them as birds’ nests, collections of feelings, experiences, and yes, advertising. When you consider the idea of brands beyond products, they become representations, symbols, or elements in our lives. Rolex is the sign of a good watch. Christianity is what I believe. Times Square is either a place I love to visit or one I avoid at all costs. They’re all brands.

Brands do more than just symbolize. They attract or repel, in part by what David Ogilvy called “the personality of the brand.” As with people, that attraction is the starting point for a relationship. The idea of anyone wanting to have a relationship with a brand is oft-debated. But the truth is, it’s true.You have a sense of the personality of Amazon, “the everything store,” as being accessible, cheap and fast.  You visit, and lo and behold there are a host of other products displayed by a magic algorithm based on your past behavior. The Amazon brand is a lighthouse that sucks you into its cave then seduces you with shiny objects you must have. You have a relationship with Amazon, and they set you up with endless other friends. I mean brands.

Brands have influence over other brands. Blackrock’s Larry Fink advises companies that they’re not just responsible for financial results, but also for societal change. The Blackrock brand is influencing other brands to step up. Procter & Gamble, the world’s largest advertiser, says it will refuse to advertise on social platforms that don’t police their content. CVS stopped selling cigarettes. Take that Marlboro man!  Brands aren’t just things you buy. They’re beliefs you buy into. Or not.

The idea of brands is really a point of view.  Brands are a lens to help make choices and register the ones we’ve made in the past. They’re entities that hold companies together.  They’re actions that drive change. They’re personalities you like or don’t.  But they’re not simply an abstract creation of marketing. They’re a force in the world, for better or worse.

Finally, brands aren’t static. They’re not marker buoys merely holding a spot. They’re dynamic creatures that can be blown off course by bad actions and a noisy crowd of haters.  But here’s a secret: a mega-billion dollar industry has grown up around brands to help guide where they go and influence what they represent.

Oh, you knew that.

It behooves anyone in charge of a brand to choose partners who share your brand view. If your partners don’t subscribe to the idea of brands as an organizing principle for life, then what navigation system do they suggest? Brands being dead, or a product of a pre-Internet era, suggests something else better is at hand. What system would that be? Virtual reality? Storytelling? Block chain?

Granted, brands come and go (Oldsmobile, Tower Records) but the idea of brands as life’s search engine has no equivalent.  Brands are an existential reference point. They have enormous monetary value. They’re not going anywhere.  What are you doing with yours?

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