It seems fashionable in blogging circles at the moment to reluctantly utter (or celebrate – depending on ones perspective!) death on thy business neighbour. Yes, if our faithful RSS feeders are to be believed, advertising is dead, marketing is dead, and now it would seem that even branding (the artform that we have held tightly to our bosom for so long) is experiencing major turbulence and fast plummeting nose-down into the dead sea!
It’s difficult to locate when this first happened, but I suspect Naomi Klein had, at the very least, a passing influence. Ironically, by attempting to unpick the very seams of branding, she produced a book that was more revealing about how to ‘do branding’ than 99% of marketing textbooks, with some nice ethical learning points for good measure (perhaps Nike could have got to this earlier had they properly digested it).
Let’s take a look at the brand itself as a cultural symbol for a sec. Without getting too etymologically hung up on things, brands no longer simply stand for positive meanings of trust and quality … if they ever did. They have become inflected with a host of negative meanings such as image over substance, excessive prices, globalisation, conspicuous logos, subliminal messaging, McWorlds, StarbuckianScapes and Swooshified® Towns to name but a few. It’s become a catch all for everything that is ambiguous, unexplainable and immeasurable with regards to a ‘company’ in marketing, and a scapegoat for things corrupt, untrue, big, bad and evil in commerce besides. In sum then, people are no looking quite so smug on Brandtopia Boulevard, and many a marketer is already fleeing for the green marketing hills!
In a somewhat bizarre twist then, it’s starting to feel like ye olde product (materiality or stuff if you prefer) is making a surging comeback. Yep, whilst the pomo branding brigade were busy losing themselves in hyperreality, it seems the techy guys sussed out their symbolic code and snuck in through the NPD back door. Which means we’re back to the land of utility maximisation, right? After all, isn’t Innocent and the recent run of success stories just plain simple great products, nothing more? A tempting outlook, but let's not get carried away ...
Of course the classic advertising and branding story goes that products are undifferentiated these days; that the point of difference is purely the imagery bestowed upon it. Well, from where I’m standing (bearing in mind that semiotics and the like is my local hood!) apart from a brief moment in fashion when people were paying £200 for a jumper simply because it had the initials “D&G” bestowed upon it, products have always mattered. I’m not saying that word-of-mouth, negative PR and product reviews in magazines are perfect at separating the wheat from the chaff, but within reason, suspect products (by this I mean it fits badly, works terribly, tastes awful, combusts instantaneously upon purchase etc.) dressed up as sexy brands have only gone so far. Not to say that the ‘best’ products have always emerged victorious for sure, but, it’s always been a balancing act. And I dare say that in our eco-aware, health/nutrition-conscious climate, pressure will be increasingly mounting to bring balance to the marketing force.
[A quick note to any readers of precious post-structuralist type ilk (all two of you!): I’m not saying that material properties are devoid of any form of socially constructed meaning: clearly things like durability, speed, etc. are themselves socio-historically situated and subject to representation. But, nevertheless, these still have ‘real effects' in the rough n tumble world that you and I know. Anyway …]
What I don’t want to suggest is that we go back full circle to the product-is-all-that-matters philosophy either. When viewed as the symbolic dimension of an object or product, brands are always going to exist regardless of whether they are 'engineered directly' so to speak. So even if a company is completely product design-focused, they will still end up with some sort of brand at the end of the day. Through this alternative material-cultural lens, perhaps we can safely say that there are a few things left to say about brands after all. This feels more interesting and productive than being bogged down by the latest set of cultural meanings that just so happen to be associated with the word ‘brand’ through negative press, overuse, marketer abuse and the usual set of clichés.
It’s necessary to distinguish between the fate of the word ‘brand’, and other things that are able to develop as a ‘brand’ without the name. The word will not be used indefinitely. It will wear itself out. But beyond the word, this might take a little longer…
So there you have it. Jacque is back. Culturemaking is back (or so he says). And brands will be kind of back eventually – once products get the fuller recognition they deserve. And in the end, we're still probably better to also try and influence brand symbolism directly than rely purely on product design performance alone – and let retail/distribution, the media, viral effects and plain ol' serendipity do all the symbolic heavy-loading for us ... right?