Brands: A Shrinking Advantage or Shifting Advantage?
Umair Haque writes today about the Shrinking Advantage of Brands. Cheap interaction, he says, is "driving the strategy of branding into decay".
Huzzah! Haque echoes a number of the things that form the basis of our mission to remake the way marketers think about marketing. In doing so, however, he seems to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If the mechanisms for building a brand are changing, does the value and advantage of a strong brand necessarily implode as well? If consumers have more of a role in determining the relevance and meaning of the brands that they love (or hate), does the fundamental importance of these brands as repositories of perceived value go away?
With cheap interaction now available to all, isn't the need for a brand stronger than ever? With all of the market noise that accompanies cheap interaction, how else can a provider of goods and services identify the specific ways that they differentiate their value? How else can customers, partners, employees and other stakeholders identify and respond to the firms that they interact with? Brands today are more relevant than ever because they are more volatile. For the Googles out there that have built multi-billion dollar brands in breathtakingly short time periods, there are many others that have lost value due to a failure to live up to the promises made to their markets (think Kodak, GM, AOL, Motorola, Sears). This is less a failure of the brands than it is a failure to deliver on those brands.
Haque makes a fundamental error that most people (including many seasoned marketers) make; he conflates "branding" with "advertising". Yes, in the industrial era interaction was expensive, communications channels were limited and awareness of a product or company was the critical challenge facing marketers. However, in today's world of cheap interaction, mass media advertising is still the primary mode of brand-building. This has a lot to do with market inertia, the influence of major advertising conglomerates and fears about messing with the orthodoxy of the 30 second spot. No CMO wants to have to justify a reallocation of massive advertising budgets, even thought far more cost-effective brand-building channels now exist.
Marketers need to redefine their roles and the process of how they build brands. This will require moving away from the advertising-dominated paradigm that proven so difficult to shake. It will also mean breaking down the wall that currently exists between marketers and product developers, so that together they can hear the marketplace and respond to its calls for new kinds of value. The most innovative leaders out their will be able to pull it off, the others can look forward to clever advertising campaigns which do nothing to bolster their weakening brands.
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