Brands in the Digital Age? ...Overrated.



What is a brand? 
Classical marketing literature most often describes it as something like "the sum of consumers’ cognitions and emotions attached to a brand name, logo and the products carrying them". Often the cognitions and emotions the marketers want to achieve get organized around a "brand positioning" or a "brand essence". Most of us would probably more or less agree with this definition.

...more or less...

- Excursus: The Babylonian Confusion around "Brand". 
There are also some new conceptions of brands around .
E.g. the conception of a brand as a player that "does things" instead of "standing for things". Basically, often this means that "company" and "brand" are used more or less the synonymously. You recognize this kind of understanding of "brand" when you hear people say "people want to interact with brands" - which wouldn't make much sense if they thought of brands as the consumers’ own associations and emotions.
Or take for instance the conception of a brand as a belief or an ideal, instead of simple associations and benefits. And even apart from intellectual planning discussions, even in everyday marketing language most marketers say "brand" when they simply mean the products they have to market. That's why there are "brand managers" but actually don't manage the "consumers' cognitions and emotions". Instead, they manage everything that makes the products successful - including even production, sales promotions, etc.
Or take the following way of using the word "brand": "We have to do more brand now - we cannot always do sales".  Here "brand" seems to indicate a certain type of campaign and of campaign objectives - typically it's about sympathy or general preference towards the brand or other brand equity figures. -

Brands (in the initial sense of the word) are overrated.
During the 20th century the term "brand" has gained such a great dominance that even the digital age's marketing speak still tries to describe everything from a "brand" perspective - even if the initial meaning of "brand as the sum of cognitions and emotions" actually doesn't fit quite well any longer. In this post I would like to explain why I believe this is the case: why "brand" is such a strong (but overrated) concept and why at least the old conception of "brand" doesn't fit very well with the patterns of modern digital marketing.

Why is "brand" still such a dominant and sacrosanct concept?
Well, mainly: because there's money in the "brand business". From a strategists point of view it's quite simple: destroy the concept of "brand" and you destroy 60% of your brand planning projects. Or financially even more devastating: 60% of the research projects. Getting rid of brand measurements would kill research companies.
Secondly: It's in the college books. Destroy the concept of "brand" and you destroy 40% of the marketing curriculum.
Thirdly: because of the constant semantic confusion described above. The confusion of "brand as concept stored in consumers' memory", "brand as the products under a certain brand name a manager has to market", "brand as everything opposed to activation or promotion", etc. As long as there is such confusion - there are enough ways to keep brand on the top agenda, even if the people involved don't really mean "brand".
Fourthly: because it is a neat management tool to streamline what and how the marketing does. "Brand" is an operational tool. Thus, the brand creates a frame of self-similarity. It is a sort of a styleguide beyond mere style. It tells marketing teams what to do. Kill the concept of "brand" and lots of people simply won't know what to manage, what to measure and where to start.

Why is "brand" overrated (nowadays)?
The most important reason is: because most planners and clients forgot that a brand itself is a means not an end. You can see this effect when people implicitly believe that the aim of communication is "to bring the brand alive" or "to make the brand stronger" or "to make people enthusiastic about the brand".
(We all know this kind of vocabulary and thinking. After several decades of such "brand jargon" marketing became the haven of loose, tautological talk where metaphors like "bring smth. alive" are used instead of clear-cut objectives and effects you can point at). 

These developments are in sharp contrast with how digital marketing is or can be carried out today. Let me explain why.

Digital Marketing Map                                           Digital Marketing Map Infographic
IMMEDIACY and shortcuts within purchase processes:  Classical "brand thinking" has been based on the notion of a division between the realm of communication and purchase. The brand served as a "bridge in memory" between the two worlds: You see a branded ad, then you recall the positive associations when you encounter the brand on the supermarket shelf. In many markets this intermediacy function of brands gets replaced by immediate technical connections between communication and purchase. And these are not just links on websites but also phenomena like "second screen" etc.

MEASURABILITY of marketing activities: The classical brand-based paradigm was happy with measuring ephemeral effects like "brand uniqueness" or "brand stature" etc. In the digital age measuring and controlling marketing effects gets more and more concrete and complex. In this kind of accountability paradigm "brand" becomes rather a black hole of unexplained effects. Let me quickly just namedrop "Big Data" in  this context - simply just to have the keyword on my blog. (no idea what this exactly is, but hey... it must be something with measurement.) The whole measurability issue is tightly related to the next factor - something I would call...

MECHANIZATION of marketing thinking: The computer is a machine. The internet is a mega-machine. And marketing, too, is increasingly thought of as a machine, a relay of many mechanisms. The fragmented touchpoints and their effects nowadays are not seen as some kind of "media magic" explained by W. Flusser,  M. McLuhan and semioticians but rather as mechanical marketing buttons and levers you can push, connect and optimize on-the-go. "We need 150 GRPs TV to raise click rate 180%.", "How many blogs can we acquire and professionalize to climb up 3 ranks on google?" etc. IN this kind of thinking there's just not much room for fuzzy "brand magic". A striking example of "mechanization" are CPC-pyament models and all kinds of performance online marketing: payment models or statistics are used to "buy traffic" - the content of the online ads is more or less irrelevant, especially when you pay for clicks only. Something similar happens with search based marketing: who needs a smart brand onion when you rank 1st on google? Another manifestation of "mechanization" are apps: little machines making certain processes easier or more fun. Not exactly classical brand thinking - something far more operational and distributional.

"Brand" could become just a means to ensure self-similarity in a concert of many un-magical mechanisms used.  Brand Planners should consciously learn to employ "mechanical" thinking. That is basically what's new about the whole "new marketing". And by mechanical I do not necessarily mean technical. What I mean is: thinking of everything as levers to reach multiple and concrete objectives. A more mechanical thinking implies questions like: "which barriers do we need to overcome?", "where in the consumer processes can we intervene?" etc. Within such a thinking pattern "brand" will have the role of a glue holding the multiple levers together not the end of all the undertakings.  Basically this is where brands actually originate from: it's the name and symbol, recognizably burned into the cattle, so that everyone instantly knows: "This is ours". So in the end maybe it's just about "branding" as one of the must-have levers among others - and not any longer about "brand" as an overarching master-solution and to everything.

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