Most consumers aren't persuaded any more by fancy words and images. After all, they see thousands of them every day and have learned to tune most of them out -- quite rightly because most of them are just "noise." With a little patience, a dash of daring and a website, any business can look and talk like a brand; it just takes a smart name, some cut-and-paste text, good graphics and a few stock photos.
What makes the difference now is delivery, not promises -- it's not what a brand says, but what it does. A brand's products earn a brand permission to ask for a slice of consumers' time, attention or money.
Of course, a brand and its products sometimes dance hand in hand, as the Apple suite of products does. But don't forget that from the late '80s to the late '90s, Apple was a formerly great brand sinking under the weight of mediocre products. It took a return to great products -- iMac, iTunes, iPod, iPhone -- to make the brand powerful again.
The point is not that brands are dead or dying, it's that the relationship between products and brands is changing, with product becoming a more crucial part of the equation.
This doesn't sound earth-shattering at first. It's just counterintuitive to anyone who has based his or her career on the idea that it's brands that connect consumers to corporations. It may even be offensive to those of us who have spent years of our lives, and billions of clients' dollars, yakking, "Brand, brand and more brand." But it's revolutionary when you consider the vast amounts of money, time and energy spent on creating, sustaining and updating brand halos, to say nothing of what's spent in the never-ending quest for big brand ideas. And it means that it will no longer be business as usual for marketing professionals and communications agencies.
On both the PR and the marketing sides, we have to rethink the way we operate. The pace of change today requires constant product news. Brand news is no longer interesting -- it's just wallpaper unless it has some real substance to justify it. Product news is what drives trial and interest, buzz and sales.
With the rise of hyperconnectivity and interactivity, standout product performance creates more buzz, which, in turn, creates more sales. Ultimately, product functionality is a bigger sales driver than any abstract, feel-good brand halo; at best, a solid brand halo makes consumers more likely to trust a company's claims and try its products.
Consumers want compelling demonstrations and credible recommendations -- and with today's rapidly proliferating social networks and specialist blogs, they have no trouble finding them. To get onto consumers' radars, a brand needs striking products that get people talking. This means enormous opportunity for the smartest marketing and public relations agencies -- agencies that recognize that the savviest consumers pay more attention to the tangibles (products) than to the intangibles (brands).
It's no wonder that we in the business have it confused -- we've been immersed in brand-speak for so long. For more than a century, advertising has been increasingly about the brand. Marketers have focused on the production and consumption of "intangibles" -- concepts that could be distributed and consumed via the mass media. And now many of the smartest people we know still argue that the brand is the product -- which is why building brands is still such a big business. The thinking is that building a powerful brand pays off with the loyalty of brand fans. But while brands still rule, the landscape is changing.
Thank "brand sluts."
For several years now, marketers have tracked a growing subset of consumers who see right through branding strategies and are intent on getting maximum value for their money. These are "brand sluts" -- savvy consumers who flit from brand to brand, choosing whichever product is offering the best proposition at the moment, then moving on. Brand sluts play a constantly expanding field of brands that compete ruthlessly yet rarely offer truly differentiating benefits.
Some consumers believe that few, if any, brands are loyal to their workforce or to their suppliers; they downsize and outsource whenever possible. Those consumers have adopted a similar approach -- as their needs change and the terms of the deal change, they readily switch allegiances. Brand sluts (and an increasing number of everyday consumers) have become adept at seeing through the spin of branding; they evaluate tangible performance, along with price and reputation, and then choose products accordingly.
Brand sluts are seduced by the newness of the new. No matter how good a product proposition is, that's not enough to make consumers loyal to the brand, because there's always something new coming down the pike. At best, they're serial monogamists, like the lover grazers on Match.com. If there's nothing novel and exciting from their current partner, they'll find a new partner to spice things up. Even brands that have ardent devotees -- take Apple again, for instance -- have that loyalty because they constantly reinvent themselves and hence retain their desirability.
The entire notion of brand loyalty is starting to look very 20th century. Or maybe we're just realizing that a lot of what seemed like brand loyalty was simply habitual repeat purchasing or lack of choice. And as it turns out, even consumers who consider themselves loyal are proving to be more fickle than they think. According to a study by the retail industry monitor NPD Group, almost half of consumers who claimed they were highly loyal to a brand were no longer loyal a year later.
Now that consumers have more choice -- and now that the pace of technological innovation means that one company rarely has the newest, best, cheapest product for long -- there's less reason for them to keep their purchasing habits. Even more importantly, consumers have more choice not just among products, but among the channels for information and dialogue about those products, opinion forming and, ultimately, feedback.
"Maybe the most powerful of all is the feedback mechanism," my colleague, a partner at Porter Novelli, Michael Ramah says. "Lifecycles of products can go from launch to crash in a matter of days now, whereas before, the trial, report and opinion-forming stages took time and offered the traditional 'brand' marketers time to counter any potential negatives you might feel by convincing you (via mass media), that you must be wrong, because everybody loves this product.
"What does this mean? PR is a blessing and a curse -- and harnessing the message can either be a day at Belmont or a roller coaster through hell."
It also means that it is past time to re-evaluate the longstanding brand-centric thinking.
Brand-centric thinking has kept marketers' focus on the "soft" aspects of marketing -- brand awareness, identity, perception -- as an end in itself, and often at the expense of a focus on product performance.
(It's not unlike today's celebrity culture, in which simply being famous -- having high brand awareness -- can become the all-consuming objective; real achievement is beside the point.) Consumers now have all too many ways of seeing beyond the brand in a matter of minutes.
Another effect of brand-mindedness is that it has inevitably led to the branded space becoming crowded with companies pulling all the same moves: catchy names, cute graphics, dedicated websites. And so consumers have grown all too familiar with the process of branding -- and thus more likely to filter it out. The physical and virtual worlds are just too crowded with brands demanding, "Pay attention to me!"
The whole notion of branding has become overstretched and devalued. This means would-be brand builders need to look carefully at what they're building their brand on if they want to achieve their goal: increasing the amount of attention, time and cash that people are willing to spend on their brand.
Are we looking at a future that's all product, and product news? Certainly there will be more of it -- released more frequently, and more creatively, via even more functional messaging, whether unpaid or paid.
As my colleague David Zucker, a partner at Porter Novelli, points out, a strong enough product can now create a halo that casts the whole brand in a positive light -- a reversal of traditional thinking. "I think the product makes the brand," he says. "And then branding helps to borrow equity from the hot product and extend it to other products from the same brand. Toyota is hot because of Prius; other Toyota lines are now imbued with greater 'green' brand equity because of the success of the Prius product driving perception of Toyota as a green brand."
Even so, in today's challenging environment, product isn't a cure-all, and we shouldn't lose sight of the bigger picture. For starters, reconsider brand loyalty, William Charnock, co-head of strategic planning at JWT Worldwide suggests. "Big brands are being built not on a hard core of loyal customers but, rather, a large group of people who consider your brand in the top tier of their repertoire. In such an environment, it's all about size and penetration."
And look beyond the product/brand dichotomy and bear in mind that it's increasingly difficult to reach consumers with any kind of message. "The challenge in successful marketing to this kind of indifference is ascribing unique and appropriate roles to every element of the marketing mix," Ira Matathia, director of consulting at Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve, says. "For example, conventional ads are still good at creating awareness, but are not a panacea for effectiveness. Most important and most ignored is the idea that for all the discussion about 'new media,' it is culture that is, in fact, the new media. So weaving the DNA of the brand/product into the DNA of the culture is a very powerful weapon -- we call it InCulture marketing."
InCulture marketing takes into account four components:
- People: Who are the influencers?
- Press: Where do they get their information -- not the thousands of messages that create noise but the stuff that actually sticks?
- Places: Where are the physical and virtual spaces where they spend their time, and how can you create a presence there, one that is complementary and useful, rather than intrusive?
- Products: What are the tweaks and variants that can create the sense of "just for me"?
How does this apply to brand sluts?
These consumers are sophisticated shoppers who aren't impressed by spin and evaluate tangible performance when making buying decisions. It logically follows that the same goes for their media consumption: They aren't going to buy into messages sent through the traditional channels, and the question "What's in this for me?" will inform their decisions of which outlets to trust and which to ignore. Smart marketers will recognize that and craft their messages -- product-centric or not -- accordingly.