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Brands Are Dead. (Really?)

By:   Date posted: February 28, 2012

According to Jonathan Salem Baskin, “brands are dead.” He’s the same man who wrote, Branding Only Works On Cattle.

Baskin says, among other things, “Nobody carries brands around in their heads. Nobody has a relationship with a brand. Or lives a brand lifestyle. Brands aren’t conversations, and they’re not bought, possessed, or coveted. Companies don’t own them. Neither do consumers or shareholders.”

Funny. As I drove from  Walmart through McDonald’s to the Apple store the other day, I could have sworn he was wrong. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a guy playing devil’s advocate to sell a few books, but c’mon, dead?

Says Baskin, “…brands are simply irrelevant in a world wherein people know that one airplane seat looks like another, different clothes and PCs are made in the same factories overseas, and that most companies expect customers to help themselves. Or when price and availability matter.”

I won’t spend this post arguing with Baskin. I’ve done enough of that on my own. Suffice to say, brands, of course, are not dead. If you believe they are, you should have your marketing badge revoked. But the value of what a brand is has come increasingly under fire.

Unfortunately, we marketers enabled this situation a few years ago. At the height of the good economy (let’s call it the year 2000), non-marketing people saw a quick buck in what they understood a brand to be. “Gimme a logo and a tagline and a few cool ads and we’ll go sell some stuff.” With no hope of a differentiated position. With no intention of investing in one. Remember Super Bowl ads from this era? You’ve no doubt forgotten the advertiser.

Seeing a quick buck themselves, agencies and marketing firms threw caution to the wind and said, “OK.” Rather than taking the time to steer clients in the right brand direction, they simply took the money. Now, years later, we ask ourselves why many clients don’t believe in brand, when the real issue is that most don’t understand it, or its power.

Of course, the rise of technology and a poor economy have heightened the argument of folks like Baskin. Through social media, customers now have the voice they never had. And with margins tight, companies are listening. But in their desperate attempt to survive, too many companies are giving in to commodity thinking.

Given no pushback, customers will always ask for a better price. Quite simply, they have to see the value in paying more. A fact that applies not only to brands, but to your services, as well.

But here, dear fellow marketer, is where you can leverage this growing disbelief in the brand to your benefit: “I can’t spend money on the brand,” says your client, “I have to sell things. Besides, how much is the brand really worth?”

Unless you believe the answer is zero (again, hand in your badge now), this question can be the tipping point that agencies, marketing firms and consultants alike can leverage to tremendous benefit (and revenue). In many ways, your answer (and your ensuing actions) defines whether you are simply a vendor, or a trusted, strategic advisor.

Ask your client: “Have you really given up on the uniqueness of your [product, service, company]? Have you completely bought into the notion that only customers can control your perception? Have you forgotten that true brands have always traveled a two-way street between a company and its customer?

The brand is the true midpoint between the voice of the customer and the voice of the company. To effectively develop, build and manage a brand, it must first have the RIGHT voice. It is the job of marketing to articulate that voice, that story and message, and manage it to (and through) the customer. Honing it, as customers experience the brand and evolve their own messaging about their brand experiences and perceptions.

No, brands aren’t dead. But increasingly, the ability of marketing firms to understand and uphold the power of the brand, is. Your challenge: Be the firm that owns brand thinking.

Your client’s bottom lines will thank you.

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For nearly 30 years, Brian Creath has been helping companies bridge business objectives to successful strategic brand and marketing outcomes. A nationally recognized expert on brand and marketing strategy, Creath continues his work as a researcher, strategist and writer, having worked with more than a hundred businesses and brands, and having been recognized with a similar number of national and international awards. Creath founded Cohension, a company focused on working with Fortune 500 and mid-sized companies to build and enhance marketing positions through innovative research, strategy and messaging. Creath is a sought-after writer and speaker on a variety of business, strategy and marketing topics, and he regularly writes on these topics for his personal blog The Idea.

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