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?