During the near future, we may be the generation to witness the death of Brands, the idea that a created identity, based on a name, a logo, a typeface, with a value that is purely defined by its existence and acceptance, will no long be a viable way to run a company. Brands evolved out of the desire to market products that were mass produced in retail environments that previously were dominated by locally produced goods. They needed to identify themselves as different and hopefully superior to other products, and to have themselves committed to memory, to try and establish a relationship, to create a repeat costumer. In the time since Brands have emerged during the advent of mass production, they have grown to an entity that is beyond the original products, where the Brand can be more the item or service being sold, where costumers have a relationship with the manufactured and maintained identity created by the corporation. Where Brands start to fail is when it is shown that there are discrepancies between the manufactured persona and the corporate reality, when cracks start to form in the facade. Information and transparency are the biggest enemies of Brands, and as customers increasing search for authenticity in companies, and the internet makes information more accessible and harder to hide, companies are having to rethink how they interact and engage with the public, if they have any hopes of them becoming customers. Paddy Harrington of Bruce Mau Design has written a very strong piece for Fast Co.Design, detailing how companies will need to let their Brands die, and instead rely on authentic storytelling.
Over time, the power of branding became so great that, in 1988, Philip Morris purchased Kraft for six times what the company was worth on paper. In essence, they bought the brand. It was the shape of the new world: saturated communications, branding, noise. Everything now needed an identity. The brand, in most cases, became equally, or in some cases, even more important than the product itself. And a massive market opened up for mass-produced goods that ignored the quality of the product because corporations understood the psychology of the consumer and could replace quality with marketing. Higher-quality ingredients were gradually replaced with cheaper alternatives, and products were outsourced to other countries where the labor was cheaper. We invented the concept of planned obsolescence.
Manufacturers gained a mastery of the power and influence of raw emotion and ran with it.
But then something happened: massive network connectivity, in the form of the Internet. [...]
Aided by the web, a new generation of consumers began to dig a little deeper. Consumers discovered that Michael Jordan was telling them to wear his shoes, while kids in sweatshops were making them. We began to respond to the disconnect between products and brands. People began to see straight through the surface of brands to the profit-driven actions that produced the products underneath. And some of the worst offenders began to change what their process with real, measurable, and positive change — not perfect, but real change. [...]
The question for established companies is, If their product now has to stand for something, what should it be? How can it establish a strong sense of community and identity?
The answer is simple: stories. But these stories have to be real.
This is an idea that we have seen popping up again and again, that the power of storytelling is what can change the way people interact with a product or material, and can elicit a genuine, emotional response. So how do companies use storytelling?
The distinction between stories and brands should be clear. Brands are not so much about how you describe yourself to your customer as much as how they describe you to others. It’s storytelling, but it’s superficial, at best. In fact, the original purpose of branding was to identify a product that was sold outside of its community of origin. Essentially, it was about labeling things so that everyone could know who had made it. Immediately, in this single act of applied identity, the idea of true community — of close relationships and their associated personal value — was lost. [...] Stories last. Stories exist in all cultures. [...] Stories speak to our deepest questions about our own existence. Stories stick because they hold real value. By definition, they entertain, but they also educate, and even instill moral values. In fact, the best stories guide our actions. They become the source code for who we are and who we want to be. For corporations to survive, they need deeply compelling stories at their heart.
A clear example of a company that is using this thinking to define themselves is TOMS Shoes, which uses authentic storytelling and a positive social message as the backbone of their corporate identity. Harrington also gives three guiding principles for companies (which goes into more detail about in his article), which are to engage meaningfully, dissolve boundaries, and celebrate language. People want their interactions with a brand to be more than just the passive intake of media. They know more about the company and its practices than every before, and expect to hold them accountable, and are demanding full transparency. It is better for a company to openly disclose its practices, and make efforts to change them for the better, that to attempt to shroud them in secrecy, to have them later revealed and become public scandal. Never underestimate the power of language, even if it does seem like an afterthought, it is sometimes what people see as the defining and unique factor of a company that sets them apart from the rest. We have known for a while that transparency was going to become a necessity for any company hoping to remain competitive and relevant, but it seems that one causality of the trend may be Brands as we know them today. The question though, is this a bad thing?