Due to the forces of the internet, consumers have better information, and therefore brands are “fragile.” That’s the assertion in “Twilight of the Brands” by James Surowiecki, the latest article in the Financial Page of the The New Yorker Magazine.
He writes, “consumers are supremely well informed and far more likely to investigate the real value of products than to rely on logos.”
This argument implies two things that aren’t reality: 1) a brand can be reduced to its logo which can itself carry the weight of communicating a product’s value, and 2) people used to rely on logos more than their own informed opinion to determine the value of a product.
Let’s start with clarifying what brand means. The semantic issues with the word brand are understandable. Iron rod brands burned identifying marks into livestock. In fact, the word brand comes from Old English and means “fire.”
So in business it makes sense that people think of brand as logo, as a visual mark of identity. But it is more helpful to think of brand as promise. A brand is a promise of an experience. Here’s why this is a better understanding of brand.
A logo is a symbol. Like all symbols it carries no meaning except that which we give it. Logos gain meaning over time as people associate expectations of experience with that mark. So the effect of a logo is to serve a cue, a reminder, a prompt of an expectation of experience. A logo points to a brand experience.
The distinction between brand and logo matters when Surowiecki’s continues in this direction. “[W]hat’s really weakened the power of brands is the Internet, which has given ordinary consumers easy access to expert reviews, user reviews, and detailed product data.”
The Internet may have weakened the power of logos, but it hasn’t weakened the power of brands. To the contrary, the forces of the Internet strengthen the brands that are doing remarkable work. There is a “winner” at the end of every online review. Those winning brands benefit from the very reviews Surowiecki says compromise the power of brand.
But what is the “power of a brand,” anyway? A brand (read “promise”) has power as it serves as an antecedent to choice. A brand orients people to certain desires and to particular decisions. The power of a brand is emotional. A brand doesn’t guarantee an outcome. It elicits a feeling.
So it’s not surprising that Surowiecki notes, “Only twenty-five per cent of American respondents in a recent Ernst & Young study said that brand loyalty affected how they shopped…the percentage of brand-loyal car buyers has plummeted in the past twenty years.”
There is rarely something to be loyal to! Cars, like many other products we buy, are generally a commodity. Can we say that any major manufacturer has invested in doing anything great in cars in the last 20 years? A brand isn’t owed loyalty. Especially if they aren’t doing the work to earn it.
However, there are places where each of us care deeply about a thing…the sound of a guitar, the calibration of an espresso shot, the character of a combination of hops and yeast, the interface of an operating system. In those places that deeply matter to each of us, there may be companies that rise to care about their product as much as we do. And in so doing they care for us. And in so doing they make a promise of an experience. And in so doing their brand doesn’t enter the twilight. It enters my heart.
And where my heart is, there is where I spend my money.