What's Beyond Branding: Substance over Style?

I hear today that Kogan Page are to lauch a paperback edition of 'Beyond Branding', the first book of The Medinge Group. Simultaneously, I read a piece from James Surowiecki (He of Wisdom of Crowds fame) in Wired magazine proclaiming the decline of brands. Of course we heard this before in 1994, when the Economist proclaimed the death of branding as Marlboro dropped its prices. It's a contradictory story. The number of new brands is exploding. The exposure of those brands is exploding (up 60% since 1990). According to Interbrand, 99.5% of consumers say they would be willing to pay more for a Sony. But they would say that...wouldn't they. And more than what? In many ways brands are less and less effective. The truth is that all forms of value are increasingly subject to independent scrutiny. The premium for Sony DVD players has fallen from 44% in 1999 to 16% today compare to the average. Consumers are much more inclined to make their own judgements of product performance. Most compellingly for me, Surowiecki points to a survey from NPD group in the US which shows that almost 50% of consumers who describe themselves as 'very loyal' to a brand, are no longer loyal one year later! Loyalty Schmoyalty. All the 'brand' kudos in the world wouldn't persuade punters to buy Nokia phones when they buried their heads in the sand over the demand for clam-shells. If it ain't stylish, the label doesn't matter. But it's not just style or performance issues that undermine brands. Political issues hold sway too. Brands such as Coca Cola, Marboro and McDonalds are just not selling in Europe right now. According to a survey from GMI, reported in Newsweek, 18% of consumers said they were less likely to buy American products since the start of the Iraq war. The proliferation of factual information and rising standards of quality across the board make brands less and less important as guarantees of quality. Brands must therefore migrate to a different competitive arena...offering different benefits beyond the product per se: leveraging service benefits, knowledge, emotion, ethics and empowerment... Difficult territory. These forms of value do not and cannot reside within branded PVC packages, stacked on shelves. They are mush more complex - the net effect of corporate AND product performance. The effect of behaviour, as well as value-delivery. However in these areas too, transparency will out the truth. Customers and other stakeholders share anecdotes and experiences; pundits comment, media speculate, analysts interpret... The truth will out. In all these competitive arenas, whether brands are trying to become 'lovemarks', 'dreamcasts', or even 'anti-brands', what matters is consistency. It is critical that the driving organisational purpose is felt and reaffirmed in every stakeholder's experience. Vapid story-telling has had its moment. Organisations must take their organisational principles to the front line - and into their products. Glasshouse believes that Corporate Marketing is the new battleground, turning organisational truths into compelling stakeholder benefits. In the age of transparency, Value-chain Information Management will become the new advertising. It many not be glamorous, but it is sexy. The final example of Surowiecki's is a gem. "In 2003, Fortune magazine described Krispy Kreme doughnuts as America's 'hottest brand'. Then, in 2004, came Atkins." So much for branding. PS. Krispy Kreme, have just arrived in the UK, and it's impressive. Dedicated, branded in-store dispensers, branded bags and take-out boxes. And, most crucially, a taste that's a genuine revelation, soft, light and very more-ish. This isn't a victory for branding, it's just the smart and effective exploitation of a dough recipe, and a production process which produces seriously yummy doughnuts. For god's sake don't start any brand extensions.


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