Over the past ten years, I have witnessed the disappearance of powerful brands and with it the diminishing of a level of enchantment that once fed our “can do, anything is possible” American view of the world. This is the first report in a five-part series exploring the impact on people and our culture of powerful brand vanishmentand why, more than ever, we need these cultural artifacts back among us.
I have to begin by actually defining what I mean by “brand” as even the basic understanding has been lost. Many claim to have a powerful brand when they actually have a powerful brand name created by a powerful product, history, founder or innovation. The word has been so distorted and misused that it has lost its authentic value and meaning. Being that I’m one of the few remaining stand-alone branding practitioners who has deep experience with creating these magical IPs, I bring a distinctive view in understanding the implications of their disappearance.
Essential Historical Knowledge
To quickly understand branding, it’s helpful to have a sense of where it all came from. Commercial branding really emerged on the American consumer landscape just after the Civil War when an abundance of commoditized products created the need differentiation. Some smart folks came to understand what sociologist Max Weber would put academic rigor behind -- when people made consumption choices, these choices held meaning for them. In other words, with all things being the same (commodities), a considered choice said something about the person who made it -- to themselves and to others. Remember when Sherlock Holmes said you could tell a lot about a man by the shoes he wears? Exactly. It is why Harley Procter imbued his commodity soap Ivory with “heavenly properties” and the insight that “cleanliness was next to Godliness” in building his soap empire and eventually the consumer goods branding giant Procter & Gamble.
Fast-forwarding, the advertising industry began to build brands from the advertising process -- a creative, conceptual process. Brands became outcomes of advertising campaigns. When Bill Bernbach launched the creative revolution by pairing two conceptual thinkers with complementary skill sets (writing and art) to solve business challenges, branding blossomed. All of the legendary ad men and women were brilliant conceptual thinkers -- branders. They sought to create symbolic value while selling products. They built creative campaigns that did more than advertise functional benefits. These produced enduring brands.
Once brands were launched, they took on a life of their own. They began to exist in people’s imaginations and in the culture outside of the advertising campaigns that created them. They became invisible mental constructs that acted as living lenses. People saw and interpreted reality through these lenses -- seeing things in the tint of the lens. Johnson & Johnson was a trustworthy health company, not a greedy pharmaceutical company. Harley Davidson bikes were actually heavy and difficult to drive, but that became an element of the swaggering Harley brand. Those who managed these brands understood what they were and the enormous value they delivered -- sustainable, untouchable value. This is why “branding” was truly revered and why advertising agencies where crucially important.
With the revolution of brand consultancies and non-advertising related branding the practice of branding changed. Everyone got into the brand game and began “building brands” with whatever they did. Literally, everything became “brand building” which is how branding became distorted and diluted. Non-conceptual thinkers reduced it to messaging, storytelling, graphic design, product design and so on.
Essentially, every marketing and sales practice co-opted the language of branding and the essence of branding was lost. Hollow and paper-thin brands sans ideas were pumped out and celebrated because they scored high on blunt measures such as awareness, differentiation and relevance. People started thinking “heck, these things aren’t that special and don’t deliver anything powerful” and brand investments dropped like a rock.
Today, one is hard pressed to find a real brand -- a powerful creative concept that sits high above the product experience to deliver incredible meaning to a universal group. What branding has largely been reduced to is simply marketing or well-designed messaging. Advertising agencies in their struggle to remain king of producing creative commercial content lost the very thing they did better than anyone -- branding. They lost this craft as they pursued other skills. A look at advertising awards show entries today shows no shortage of brilliant creative content. In our culture, however, where are the powerful brands?
What Have We Lost?
I lived in the age of powerful brands and also created a few, so I am sensitive to the loss of these social and cultural beacons. We have lost ubiquitous symbols that reminded us of important things and inspired us to take actions to enjoy or create those things in the world. We have lost some fantasy, romance, giggles and goose bumps in our lives. We have lost reminders and triggers that subtly invaded our consciousness to reinforce special ideas. Big ideas. Gone.
It might sound silly to some reading this, but when I went to McDonald’s with a friend that experience actually had positive social meaning. When someone showed up with a six-pack of Michelob it said something about the weekend we were about to have. When I got a Tiffany box I knew I was extra special. When I gave a Hallmark card I knew I was adding another level of intensity to my greeting. These social and sentimental tools -- the brands -- were all there for us. When we used them, they added to our human connection and enriched our consumption experience. How does one measure the loss of enchantment?
Also, for companies, brand affinities today are much lower, loyalty is much more fickle and people are actually questioning whether the days of enduring brand love are over. The emphasis is on algorithmic performance marketing and optimized messaging.
Yes, these methods sell very well, but do they create brands? Does that matter? What you’ll come to see by the end of this series is that people are starved and searching for meaning in our complex, disrupted world. There is a piercing call for brands at a frequency that is too high to be heard by most. Today, even our most exciting brands (Nike, Apple) feel flat. Why? Because those in charge are focused on brilliant marketing execution rather than on sharpening the brand. Everything looks bright and shiny, but inside the brand is rotting away and the value is increasingly hollow. Brand research numbers don’t tell the story as research instruments don’t measure enchantment. The research is used to support that everything is going along just fine, reinforcing the declining state of brands. Those who understand brands, on the other hand, can see exactly what’s going on.
In Part 2 of this series I will explore the harmful myths undermining brand building today and why it is so hard to build powerful brands in the current business environment.
Photo by Jeremy Bishop/Unsplash
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