The Failed State Of Branding

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How well do you think brands are doing?

Brands are going to have to face the music. It’s a ruse that has (probably) been going on longer than anyone cares to admit, but it’s something that has showed itself – front and center – in the past few months. What we’re seeing is something we may have known all along (but were reticent to admit). People just don’t care or think that much about brands. The entire engine of advertising is built on that truism. If people loved brands, there would be no need to advertise, right? Advertising is simply a financial engine that allows brands to pay to have access to an audience. This got very murky a little over a decade ago, when the Internet and social media collided. Suddenly, because all of the things that people think, like, share and create was made public, brands figured that they could suddenly engage and connect with anyone who makes mention of their favorite bubbly sugar water. It turns out that even if millions of people are liking a brand anywhere public, it doesn’t really mean that they care all that much about it, does it?

What are we seeing suddenly that should make us rethink branding in 2014?

Here are four different types of brand new content that all marketers need to read, watch and think about before they go out develop their next Pinterest or Vine strategy:

  • Are Consumers “Falling Out of Love” With Brands? That is the question that this Marketing Charts article asks. It is based on a study conducted by Mindshare called, Culture Vulture 2014 (but it also looks at some other reports), and here’s what the article states: "…consumers are ‘falling out of love with brands’ and that ‘brands are in crisis’… only 47% of North American consumers last year agreed that they like to pass on interesting things they see or hear about brands, with that figure having steadily fallen over the past few years, from 66% in 2010. The analysts take that as a sign that ‘a majority of brands are seeing their relationships with consumers weakening,’ and that brands need to better adapt to consumers’ expectations." Are you surprised by this? Brands are busy trotting out how many followers, likes and friends they have, but consumers are busy not being interested or asking, "what have you done for me lately?"
  • Twilight Of The Brands. The New Yorker ran this fascinating article from James Surowiecki (who also authored the excellent book, The Wisdom Of Crowds back in 2004), that looks at consumer empowerment and access to information as a few of the key leading indicators as to why consumers are caring less and less about brands. From the article: "You can never coast on past performance–the percentage of brand-loyal car buyers has plummeted in the past twenty years–and the price premium that a recognized brand can charge has shrunk. If you’re making a better product, you can still charge more, but, if your product is much like that of your competitors, your price needs to be similar, too. That’s the clearest indication that the economic value of brands–traditionally assessed by the premium a company could charge–is waning. This isn’t true across the board: brands retain value where the brand association is integral to the experience of a product (Coca-Cola, say), or where they confer status, as with luxury goods. But even here the information deluge is transformative; luxury travel, for instance, has been profoundly affected by sites like TripAdvisor."  This means that in a world where the experience is everything, a product or service has to do more than just bang a drum to tell the world how great it is… they actually have to be great. Which, for most, is a constant struggle.
  • Absolute Value. That New Yorker piece above featured this book (co-authored by Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen). This brand new business book looks at why consumers really make the choices that they make, and just how much power a brand actually has in that relationship. The reason for writing this book? Both authors feel that branding and loyalty are losing their relevance, because consumers are more connected and informed. In short, consumers are making better choices that are more rational and this puts a lot of what we know about branding (and it’s power) in the corner.
  • Facebook Fraud. This video (which is embedded below) has been making the rounds this week. It’s highly controversial and it’s getting a ton of attention. When I first saw it, there were only a few thousand views, and now it’s creeping close to 1.3 million views. It has got a bunch of people up in arms. There is enough discourse surrounding the validity of the content, that it’s not worth diving into further here. Still, it fits the general thought of this blog post: in a world where brands are so thrilled and excited to get people to like them, follow them and share their content, what we’re seeing is that only a few people in the marketplace really care all that much to do so. Personally, I’m not sure why this is such a contentious issue with anyone? For most people, it’s enough to just see your commercials… they don’t need much more. Just because brands want people to follow them and share their content, it doesn’t mean that consumers really care. This type of activity might be perfect for the heavy users, but the vast majority of purchasers could probably care less. No matter how excited the brand is about the prospect.

There is hope.

Not all is lost. These are important pieces of content that most brands should spend the time to consume, think about and build a true strategy against. The opportunities to connect and build a direct relationship with consumers has never been more promising. The challenge – for most – is that they are bringing a very traditionally-based advertising mindset to the fold, instead of spreading their wings and seeing the bigger opportunity in smarter marketing mixed with better consumer experiences. These next few years are going to be even more challenging for most brands, because consumers are becoming more connected and are consuming media in such new and interesting ways. Personally, this failed state of branding is probably a good thing for brands who are willing to think differently about what it means to create and share a message moving forward.

So, what do you think? Are brands losing their relevance more than ever?


  1. In the era of Kickstarter we are much more likely to pass on happy stories of little known brands, our personal discoveries, than old school dynastys. Fragmentation of their markets should be very a real worry.
    As you have mentioned often in the past Mitch when the time comes that we all have a Makerbot in our garage there will be a list of big winners who were behind it and it’s not gonna be the old boys.
    P.S. The Facebook fraud video is an interesting one that I have already seen. It makes perfect sense, but this of course does not mean it is true.

  2. Which Great Marketer was it who said that “pride goeth before a fall?”
    Presumably vanity metrics will become more conspicuous as the brand-to-consumer relationship becomes more direct, and that’s good news for actual marketers.
    On happier note, I’d say the Veritasium video is a great piece of content marketing. Should be interesting to see its results … and the inevitable scrutiny of whether they’re authentic. 🙂
    Thanks for the great post!

  3. I had very little idea of the problem that Facebook has when it comes to views and fake likes. I think I will look for natural likes more then paid and watch costs. I’m not sure if this is fraud but I do think Facebook needs to fix a few things. Getting rid of fake likes as a start but I can see the issues this presents. Interesting topic.

  4. I don’t think brands are dead, to be honest. I don’t disagree with your points, though.
    To me, this era of the connected consumer and always available information just means that if you’re saying your brand is something it’s not, then people will find you out. And they’ll out you. Mercilessly.
    So, to me, the brand still matters. But what has really changed the balance. Marketers used to be able to overwhelm a mediocre product or service experience with messaging. They can’t. To an extent now more so than any time in the past, the brand is what you do not what you say.
    “Branding is dead” (not exactly what you’re saying but what I see others say frequently) is really, to me, marketers despairing that “the branding tactics I know aren’t working any more.”
    Which would mean (drum roll) that they haven’t pressed CTRL ALT DEL on what they know about marketing and branding, right?
    (And yeah, I loved the book. Thanks for writing it.)

  5. I love the topic and the questions Mitch.
    I have to say that I think brands are more relevant than ever. However, I believe companies are realizing that they don’t automatically get to be a brand when they open their doors or put out an ad.
    I believe the shift towards new media has forced leaders to a new awareness: Companies never owned their brand to begin with.
    The brand has always been owned by the consumer. Companies can influence their brand, but ultimately their brand is a perception they’ve earned. A companies role to is to guard, build or shape the reputation they want to earn. Since actions speak louder than words, a company can do this by intentionally designing consumer experiences. These experiences are built on a set of expectations created through advertising promises. Then they are reinforced by the collective total of micro-experiences along every company-consumer touchpoint.
    When a consumer’s expectations are exceeded by delightful experiences, the company earns a great reputation and thus the brand is built. This means great experiences will need to be designed across all touchpoints including traditional media, in-store experiences, websites and yes, social media. As you’ve said before, this is the crux of native advertising. Companies can’t expect a consumer to have a great YouTube experience when they see a TV commercial there.
    Since the brand is owned by the customer, then the company must have a way to influence it. This is where culture fits in. Culture and brand are opposite sides of the same coin. Inside the company it’s culture, outside the company it’s brand. Instead of thinking they own the brand, leaders of organizations will need to focus on the levers that have a direct influence on the brand. Namely, their culture. Through my personal experience, I’ve become convinced great brands can’t be built without great cultures.
    Mitch, I agree for brands to become relevant, they’ll have to throw out their old mental models of advertising and spread their wings. I love the metaphor you used because it speaks to another topic I’m very passionate about…emergent behaviour as seen in flocks of birds.
    There is little debate that the world of media, branding and organizations is in a high state of flux and disruption. Unlike the past, survival through this period of chaos and complexity will not depend on the historical size or strength of an organization. Instead, it’s my hypothesis, that the next wave of great brands will emerge because they were the most adaptive to change.
    Thanks for continuing to ask the great questions Mitch. I’m always inspired by your thoughts and I really appreciate the opportunity to leave my thoughts here.
    Many thanks,

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