Why Branding Is An Artifact Of The Past

Sense Worldwide’s Brian Millar addresses the counterarguments to his claim that companies should be more focused on products than on building brands.

A short while ago, I wrote an article on this site suggesting that you can’t build a brand simply by setting out to build a brand. And in fact, thinking too much about brands can actually get in the way of the real business of your company. I suggested that you try an experiment: Stop talking about brands for a month, and see what happens. The article got a lot of attention on Twitter, and provoked a lively debate in the post’s comments section.

Almost all of the remarks were smart, good-humored, and well argued; the rest were mainly mine. The objections seemed to fall into a few broad themes, and Co.Design editor Belinda Lanks asked me to write a follow-up to expand on my answers. For those who want to continue the conversation, I’ll be checking in below.

Point #1: Brands are important. So you have to think about them a lot.

In Mary Poppins, we learn about Mr. Banks, the children’s father, and what he does for a living.

He sat on a large chair in front of a large desk and made money. All day long he worked, cutting out pennies and shillings and half-crowns and threepenny-bits. And he brought them home with him in his little black bag.

It’s a charming way to describe something that only a small child, and possibly Robert Mugabe, could ever believe: That you can make money by literally making money.

Yet many people seem happy to apply this Mary Poppins logic to branding: Brands are valuable, so you need to go to work to make brands. There’s a category mistake at work here. Money isn’t valuable because the paper it’s made of is valuable. It’s valuable because we all agree it’s valuable. Society creates that value, not the printing presses or the mints or the chaps in storybooks who cut pound notes out with scissors.

So we go to work to make things and do stuff that people value, and are willing to pay money for. Similarly, to build a brand your organization needs to do and say things that people find valuable.

But it’s consumers who create the value intrinsic in brands: We all judge companies by the things they say, the things they do, and how those two things match up. If they match well (iPads do seem quite magical), then their worth goes up in our minds. If they don’t (BP has a flowery logo and little windmills on its petrol stations but destroyed a load of the Eastern seaboard of the U.S.), then we like—and value—them less.

Point #2: This doesn’t take into account behavioral economics, psychology, or the value of brand tracking.

The things that I consciously think about a brand belong to me. I’m also quite happy with the idea that I make a lot of unconscious decisions about brands, possibly far more than I make unconscious ones. And at Sense Worldwide, we frequently work with clients to understand the psychological cues and behavioral economics behind consumers’ choices.

But the more we understand about the way that consumers make choices, the less brand thinking and traditional brand-tracking research make sense. Brand tracking often makes artificial distinctions for consumers that really don’t model the way we make a buying decision. They ask things like: Does A wash whites better than B? Which performs best on colored clothes? They rarely give consumers an option that says, Meh. I just don’t care.

Good tracking studies need to be accompanied by research to understand the latent needs of consumers: Done in isolation, they can end up focusing marketers on solving the wrong problems.

Point #3: Why do companies buy brands for millions of dollars if they’re valueless?

Why did investment companies plow your pensions into subprime mortgages? Because they had a model that showed that they were valuable and another model that showed that their value would increase. Remember how that ended? Brand valuations make those models look positively scientific and precise. WPP’s Brandz tracker values Apple at $183 billion. Omnicom’s Interbrand values it at $33 billion. Any models that are so absurdly divergent are worse than useless. As some physicists say about string theory, it’s "not even wrong."

Brand equity measuring dates to the late ’90s, when companies became obsessed with delivering "shareholder value." It was in the interests of marketers and marketing networks to show how brands contributed to shareholder value and to put a tangible figure on something that had previously only been abstract. The companies that restructured around delivering "shareholder value" failed to do just that—and spectacularly. It’s time to move on.

Point #4: Your arguments are old-fashioned.

This was the most puzzling group of objections, but it was a fairly large one, so I’ll answer it as best I can. I wouldn’t have written this article 10 years ago, when large corporations had a great deal more control over the conversation between themselves and consumers. It was a pretty one-way kind of a chat, with the brands doing much of the talking through above-the-line advertising, sponsorship, and so on.

So the classic simplified branding model, where you make a promise, deliver on the promise, and then repeat the process, actually worked pretty well. Now the situation is a lot more complicated. Consumers don’t just form opinions in their own minds any more. Instead, we have conversations. And one vociferous consumer who, say, writes a song about your airline can earn a louder voice than the biggest brand can buy. So brands are even less of a property than they used to be.

That also goes for the brands that I don’t really think about. Marketers often talk about low-interest categories. But the stuff that doesn’t interest me may be fascinating to you. I couldn’t give a hoot whose name is on my batteries. But if you have a pacemaker, or you explore caves for fun, batteries are going to be really, really interesting to you. And now it’s easy for me to access your thoughts about those categories. That process means that it’s harder to shift poor-quality goods with great image building. General Motors did it for years. Aston Martin, the same. How’s that working out for them now?

If you read I’m Feeling Lucky by Douglas Edwards you’ll get a full account of the early experience of marketers at Google. They were largely ignored by the wider company. Top Googlers showed a frank disdain for any kind of brand building. By any measure, Google became one of the most valuable companies on Earth. Think how many dotcoms went bust in the same era, shoveling huge amounts of venture-capital cash into advertising campaigns right up until the minute they hit the ground.

The selling of products is only going to get more social, and the value of brands is only going to get more volatile and nebulous. The only "old school" concept is really going to be brand valuation models like WPP’s Brandz and Interbrand/Businessweek’s Top 100.

Are brands a flat-earth theory? I still think that they’ve become so, but I’d love to know your thoughts. Please tell me what you think below.

[Image: ihor_seamless, NinaM, and Photoroller via Shutterstock]

Add New Comment


  • Mark

    What a fantastic discussion. I do agree with many of your points and you set my mind racing - Thank You!

    This is the mental puzzle that is whirring in my head now:
    When I try to describe brands of, say, Apple & BMW, I always end up referring to their products. I *feel* a certain way about these brands due to how their products make feel - which is attributed to their ability to do what they should. A computer that is easy to use and a well built car that keeps me warm in the rain and gets me home after work. Or so I thought.

    Then I started thinking about watches. I like watches.

    I have a Timex. It tells the time and it's reliable. I don't feel much for it and if I lost it I would not be distraught. Would I buy another one? Sure. It does what is says on the tin, right? 

    I am also drawn to Bell & Ross watches that cost 4k+ and these also tell the time, probably just as well as my Timex, albeit they don't have a light.

    But Bell & Ross stimulate me with imagery of being a super fighter-pilot and an all-action-hero etc. Selling me a dream that is only tangible in their brand, not their product. What they don't really do is promise a watch that tells the time any better than any other.

    So it's all a statement then? People select and buy products to showcase their status / allegiance / side etc to other people (who have also seen and been influenced by the brand)

    So I'll buy a Bell & Ross watch for 4k more than another that would do the same job and all my friends will think I'm amazing, women will fall at my feet and the head of the RAF will send me my wings and a jet fighter. I'll be the most manly of men that ever was. Or at least, I'll *feel* that this will happen.

    I know it wont and I suspect everyone else knows this too - but people buy the illusion, happily, to fill a hole in their lives. And they pay a lot for it.

    Have we made this hole that can't be filled by promising things that are simply not true? Have we made this hole just to profit from it?

  • Guy Hedger

    Great food for thought but the note that resonated most was the comment about brands as "managed memories". If marketeers thought about that deeply in context to their advertising they would produce less rubbish, lurching from one poorly thought out campaign to another is if hoping to strike gold by accident. Too many talk about the same atypical examples such as Apple. Do their comments still stand for low interest, low engagement, commodity sectors. I think not. Brand appeal in these sectors can be the key competitive discriminator. There is so much nonsense talked about social networks and "conversations". For a few brands it has real importance but for the majority it is a sideshow. There are probably over 3,500 brands in a typical Tesco. Does anyone seriuosly think a typical Tesco consumer is going to use social media in their own private time to discuss and research shower-gel, shoe polish or sugar etc etc. marketeers ought to wise up and get real and not hide behind over-simplistic bull***t such as the "brand promise".

  • George

    The treasury probably sold a license to Mr Banks.  Many quality brands have been acquired, sold or licensed with the consumer left wondering what ever happend to the quality of products made by the company or why their once favorite tool manufacturer is now selling handbags and headphones.  I quess it has made me a groucher net consumer as I can no longer rely on a brand name but actually have to compare and try to evaulate the products.

  • Ben Thoma

    In point #2, you say, "I’m also quite happy with the idea that I make a lot of unconscious decisions about brands, possibly far more than I make unconscious ones." Is one of these uses of "unconscious" supposed to be "conscious?" If so, which one?

  • arthurascii

     Good spot. I make more unconscious decisions than conscious ones.

    And my subconscious makes me make mistakes.

  • Dougthenash

    Psychologists will tell you that the way we "frame" an experience has a lot to do with the way we perceive it. Sometimes companies have the opposite problem to the one everyone seems to be obsessed with here... that the perception of their product/ service/ experience is much worse than it really is. In this respect innovating what people feel for the brand is much more relevant than improving the company's products or services.

  • Anne Miles

    I believe the value of the brand and the importance of brand is still relevant, but what has shifted is that the product experience creates the brand as much as the design or the face of the business. I think Brian's point is well written and intelligent but it is an either/or point of view rather than an evolution. 

    What I love about the current environment is that a brand has to be congruent with the experience of the business from floor to ceiling - it has to be authentic and transparent. Lovin' that.

  • Gail

    Anne, Absolutely love and support your viewpoint.  I believe brands are actually more important than ever.  We just need to remember that a brand is anything and everything having to do with the consumer/customer experience, whether the brand guardians directly control it or not.

  • Kåre Garnes

    If low quality products are harder to shift, how do you explain Justin Bieber?

  • Hal O'Brien

    By the phrase, "survivability bias."  That is, there are possibly millions of Bieber wannabes, but only one was actually successful.  By focusing on the one who made it, you're overlooking all the ones who did the exact same thing, and failed anyway. (The same criticism applies to Jim Collins' books.)

  • Wolf Becvar

    Agree with a lot of things here but tell me how are we going to distinguish similar products with more or less equal benefits if not through brand recognition. So I dare to believe that branding is an artifact of the past imho it's the most essential part nowadays in a world full of copycats and me toos.

  • Sebastian Gubser

    I agree with you on many things: there is no way a brand is going to have a longevous life if the products are bad and it is indeed absurd to work double on the brand and half on the products. But there is still something I cannot agree with and that is the fact that brand valuation is actually a thing of the past. It will surely be less relevant in the future, but not obsolete, because brands are still a very present concept in the mind of the consumer and that mostly unconsciusly. There's a big distinction between different categories of goods and some, more than others, really rely on their brands. Apple is a good example: they work parallel on their brand and the quality of their products, but let's be honest: who buys an iphone, an ipod or a mac because they're objectively the best products? Nobody. Consumers buy apple because its trendy, because they have a beautiful design, because of their high price and their positioning as premium brand. People will never forget that, and Apple would sink without its brand (like it did in the past). A brand has a value, and that value is tangible whether it becomes social or not, but sadly that value is very difficult to estimate and mathematical calculations are simply incorrect and sometimes useless. But the reason why brands are valuable is that consumers build a relationship with them and at the end they end up trusting them; that's the value they have: Trust. And that's a huge value. So brands should on the other hand not abuse of the consumer's trust, keep up with those expectations and "maintain the promises" they keep renewing. But abandoning the "Building a Brand" strategy is in my opinion completely wrong, what it shouldn't be done instead is forgetting what the company really does: and that is products/services.

  • ianwest

    Totally agree - brands are not engineered, they are emergent. As soon as something is made and sold, a brand exists, like it or not. It is a natural product of the interaction of a product or service with the public at large. But if we don't manage and nurture it it can take on a life of its own, and not necessarily the one we would choose.

  • Arman Nobari

    Those who set out to specifically build a brand create a facad. Conversely, when a business is so focused on creating memorable and valued experiences, products, and/or services for it's clients is when a "brand" is truly born. Its just that some of the facades look convincingly real at times.

  • Kevin Budelmann

    This is a great reminder of why brand building is company building. Brands should not be seen as facades, they're built on genuine human needs and competitive differences. Google not being focused on tired brand techniques, or Sense Worldwide revisiting the language of branding, doesn't mean they aren't engaged in brand building themselves – quite the opposite.

  • Roger Hurni

    While the process of branding a company has changed. The value of developing a brand hasn't. So from that perspective branding isn't an artifact of the past - merely the approach. Case in point is Chobani Yogurt. It is a strong brand that was built through a very non-traditional methodology. 

  • DannyF

    Branding is as you say: "valuing a product".  If Coke, for example, added  vinegar and cyanide to its product, I guarantee that the branding would not achieve much, but it would destroy customer's value of their product.  Build faulty services, and branding won't do much.  Build a great product and have no branding, that is also a fruitless exercise because ultimately, no-one will value the product.  You may as well give it away for free.  Branding is simply a reflection of customer value.  How we view that magic value has now shifted onto the consumer.  Companies don't have to guess the value of their product, they can go on facebook and ask 4 million people what they think of it......they have to be prepared to listen if they want to be truly sucessful

  • Jimmer

    a brand is a face. it's a thing you need, makes your life better or just gets things done.
    the framing what brand is may morph over time, but it'll always represent that promise.
    I'm your buddy.