At its core, a brand is a promise to customers to deliver a specific product, service and/or experience with particular qualities. Brands deliver value to customers by serving as a shortcut in a purchase decision and by acting as a badge of sorts. They deliver value to manufacturers by justifying a price premium relative to unbranded equivalents.
Brands have, no doubt, played a helpful role in our economy over the past decades. And they definitely create lots of jobs for marketers, ad agencies, media agencies and a plethora of branding and design shops. But I’m starting to wonder whether brands are just a bit too quaint for today’s world.
I know, I know. Many people have predicted the demise of all sorts of things only to be mocked by their stubborn persistence. But life today would be, in many ways, unrecognizable to an American from 50 years ago. And there is no law of nature that says brands must exist.
So why do I wonder whether brands are on their way out? Simple. Today’s world has gotten a lot faster and the speed is only increasing. With tools such as cellphones, email, and the various social networks that occupy so much of our time today, people have become accustomed to rapid response from many of the people and companies with whom they interact. We might forgive Grandma if she doesn’t get back to us for a few days. But we’re starting to expect that companies will respond within hours. This expectation will only intensify. Ask the good folks from Motrin how much time businesses have to respond to and satisfy their consumers these days. The Motrin blowup happened in a world where Twitter had single digit penetration. Imagine what will happen when 80% of the U.S. is on Twitter!
Now in the past, you were expected to remain consistent with your brand. If you were Nordstrom, you had to consistently deliver great service. That was the promise you made and you were expected to keep it. But if a customer ever had a bad experience with Nordstrom, there’s a good chance that they wouldn’t abandon the brand because Nordstrom would have stored up some equity with them. They’d likely give Nordstrom another chance. With long cycle times, you have an opportunity to make it up. And, to be honest, customers didn’t always investigate too closely. If your brand was known as the one with the best tasting products, you may have earned that with truly superior tasting products but customers wouldn’t necessarily taste-test your every new product to hold your feet to the fire.
The mindset today is different. Cycle times are shorter, people expect brands to keep their promises consistently and constantly and customers are very savvy. If “what have you done for me lately?” used to mean “what have you done for me in the past few months?,” today it is coming to mean “what have you done for me in the past few minutes?” In that world, brands have to stay sharp and on their feet. They must be fanatically careful to always stay exactly true to their brand and what it stands for.
Well if you are consistently and constantly delivering what your brand stands for and one misstep can destroy you, then do you really have a brand? In other words, is there really something that exists apart from your current tangible actions? A brand is a promise. And a promise is about the future. In a world of immediacy can your promises about the future offer anything beyond what you’re doing at this very moment?
JulieJanuary 16, 2010 at 6:25 am
Interesting post Adam. But I think there is a different side. First I do agree that expectations have become instant. And this is going to have a huge impact on customer care and recovery. More and more we see people using Twitter as a venue for questions and complaints, and the expectation just like in the personal world, is someone will get back right away. This has huge implications on how care teams are trained and staffed, and I think most companies haven’t adjusted to this yet. They are still staffing call centers as the primary mode of response. That aside, I do believe that the “lightness” of the interaction also means that customers will forgive more rapidly, move past the issue and give it another try. (As long as the company holds up it’s end of the relationship and makes sincere and speedy efforts to right things). I think that just like in real life relationships in the modern age, there may be less deep seated resentment and grudge holding. e.g. “Ok, I’m upset, but I’m over it. Let be friends again.” Also I think brands will continue to play a very important role of helping customers navigate too much information and choice in this overloaded world. Thanks for a provocative post.
JulieJanuary 17, 2010 at 8:01 am
Hmm. I’m not sure. I think one of the strongest tests of your brand is that you act off brand and consumers notice right away. That’s been my experience in the last 25 years. And even with consistently technical performance you can have 2 (or more) brands that do this at parity and then how do I choose? All HD TV’s may offer same quality, comparable price, great service, but how can brand give me an edge?
I think it’s going to get harder and harder to do this in the new digital age and I do think that consumer’s opinions will count more than ever, but I still believe there is a role for the brand manufacturers to craft the brand stories and even to suprise and delight with new product features, offers, events that help build the image of the brand (those are things consumers can’t do).
Technical performance (minute by minute or over time) always matters. Great brands have to deliver functionally or no amount of marketing can save them.
But I would argue that as the barriers to market entry keep lowering with technology innovation that brand will play even a more important role going forward. I can launch my own sporting brand because I can make sneakers in my basement with design software and a 3d printer-but that doesn’t give me the brand power of Nike or Adidas.
That’s my Twist. Julie