Brian Creath

Brands Are Dead. (Really?)

In Brand, Brand Strategy, Marketing, Positioning, Strategy on December 18, 2011 at 4:17 pm


[Originally posted on May 18, 2009]

Brands Are Dead,” according to Jonathan Salem Baskin, who wrote, “Branding Only Works On Cattle.”

In a post from the blog, ‘Business Pundit,’ Mr. Baskin says, among other things, “Nobody carries brands around in their heads. Nobody has a relationship with a brand. Or lives a brand lifestyle. Brands aren’t conversations, and they’re not bought, possessed, or coveted. Companies don’t own them. Neither do consumers or shareholders.”

Funny. As I drove from Walmart through McDonald’s to the Apple Store the other day, I could have sworn he was wrong. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a guy playing devil’s advocate to sell a few books; but c’mon, dead?

No, brands aren’t dead. Placing a unique label on something to: a) claim ownership over it, and b) differentiate it from similar items won’t die any time soon. But with any luck, the term branding will.

For the past 15 years or so, I have watched as marketing directors, CFOs, CEOs, ad agencies, design firms and others shifted from talking about brands in the abstract to branding in the specific. Branding was put into the hands of those who only saw (or perhaps understood) its tactical manifestations: colors, logos, taglines, ads, websites, etc. The more this happened, the more these surface items became a proxy for the brand itself. The terms ‘brand’ and ‘branding’ came to be used interchangeably. As this deterioration took place, ‘branding’ became synonymous with fluff. And rightly so. Problem is, this artificial concept of branding never had anything to do with what a true brand is in the first place.

As the economy grew, non-marketing people saw a quick buck in what they understood branding to be. “Gimme a logo and a tagline and a few cool ads and we’ll go sell some stuff.” With no hope of a differentiated position. With no intention of investing in one. That’s not a brand. That’s a house of cards.

You can’t brand a brand. You can position it. You can advertise it. You can publicize it. You can even promote it. But ‘brand’ is a noun, not a verb. It is the essence of a company, a product, a service — a shortcut path to all of the emotional and logical benefits a thing possesses.

Says Mr. Baskin, “…brands are simply irrelevant in a world wherein people know that one airplane seat looks like another, different clothes and PCs are made in the same factories overseas, and that most companies expect customers to help themselves. Or when price and availability matter.” True brands carry an emotional appeal — something that Mr. Baskin’s argument does not. (He does know that human beings are involved here, doesn’t he?)

Interestingly, true brands — those built for the right reasons that stand for the right things — are on the verge of a major renaissance (but that’s a post to come).

While I’m working on my next post, I hope you’ll read about how Cohesion helps organizations build stronger messaging to increase consistency, lower cost and drive growth, here.

  1. Nice post. I think the author here was referring to the fact that as people have become price sensitive during this economic downturn, brands are less important. Unless of course, your brand stands for low price, ie. Walmart.
    Now the conflict in this argument arises when all competing products adopt the “low price” mantra. Given that scenario, how does a consumer make a choice? What criteria for decision making are used? Price being equal, there has to be a reason to select one product over another. That’s where the power of a brand comes into play.

  2. “‘brand’ is a noun, not a verb…” Good point. It’s been funny (in a disconcerting sort of way) to watch agencies and marketing firms hopping on the brandwagon over the past 7 years or so in an effort to reinvent themselves. ‘Reinvention’ has been vital to the relevance, and apparently the success, of the agency (once ‘full-service agency’, then ‘integrated marketing firm’, then a ‘branding/communications agency’, on and on it goes…). But it’s ironic that so many of these agencies themselves are brandless, which they can only be when they’ve staked their own positions on fleeting industry trends, (creative, or technological) and the latest buzzwords of the trade. That ‘brand’ (whether as a noun or a verb) is making a comeback as a priority for ad/marketing firms, and hopefully their clients, tells us just how far off the mark they’ve (we’ve) been.

  3. Branding is the process which results in either defining, strengthening or even possibly destroying the brand. Branding may very well be the one’s call for help in providing a framework for something he would like to be a brand…or at least the beginning of identifying the definition of what one would like his “property” to represent. TC

  4. Brands are by no means dead. Brand loyalty however is struggling. Parity products, the economic downturn, too many price promotions, have all helped erode brand loyalty. Most consumers have several brands in their consideration set for products that perform the same function. And each of those brands must fight to stay top of mind and maintain their share of sales/market without relying entirely on discounting (which is a sure fire way of eroding brand equity). But strong brands continue to endure and stand for something in consumers’ minds. Witness the huge generic product movement that started many years back in the CPG industry (during another period of economic downturn). It certainly carved out a place for no-name,lower cost products on store shelves (though many now carry their own brand — or store — names). But they didn’t take over. While price is a big factor in many decisions, consumers still want brand names they know and trust — especially in those categories where they consider unacceptable the lower quality that often goes hand in hand with lower cost. You may not mind serving a generic cereal to your kids (after all they don’t know the difference), but you’re likely to still want a car or computer with a reputation for dependability, or an insurance company who you believe will help you when you’re in need — or your favorite pasta sauce for dinner.

  5. […] may want to read my last post before you begin this […]

  6. My apologies for the long letter, but I don’t have time this morning to make it shorter and want to say something to the folks involved in this conversation who I sense are thinking, concerned, and responsible marketers.

    I guess it may be difficult for some to imagine a time before the word, branding, was used in marketing. I’m not talking the middle ages, but a scant twenty years or so when people bought products and trusted companies who built reputations, good ones. Back then there was talk of name awareness when agencies had people at the helm who put their names on their work and represented their clients: before JWT and WPP. Name awareness was measured and top of mind was a value reflected in sales. Emotions were NOT called in to play as a substitute for product features and benefits, many of which were, and still are, unsustainable.

    Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP noted in a letter in their Social Responsibility report: “So if the marketing industry has been unwittingly complicit in causing the problem (build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere), it’s now confronted with an historic opportunity: to shape and encourage consumer demand for sustainable products and lifestyles; to restore the true value of durability; to reject the superfluous in products and packaging; to make much of what has passed for fashion deeply unfashionable…”

    What I think is that brand and branding was used in the service of so many unsustainable products and services with too many disreputable companies across a wide range of unsustainable industries that it may be viewed as a cover-up as a noun and covering up as a verb.

    The language of brands is rife with what the late George Carlin called a soft language and said, “I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t like words that conceal reality…” My sense is that a good portion of consumers, especially younger ones, don’t like them either.

    Maybe we have just come around a corner, with three of the top four advertisers in Internet advertising suffering mightily – retail, automotive and financial services – where we can start to address authenticity, reputation and, as a tip of the hat to Mr. Carlin, reality for the emerging and sustainable business landscape. It is not just coincidental that what we hear today is all about the lack of trust and confidence among our citizens towards a significant number of our business leaders and their companies is proof positive that these these two values are crucial to sales.

    I recently heard Mr. Baskin speak at a meeting of the Luxury Marketing Council here in San Francisco. I wrote later and repeat now, “this is a great book to read and send to your clients who need to challenge themselves to thinking about a world without branding. Three years ago I recommended not using the word, brand, for a whole week, substituting instead “reputation” to shift perceptions. Give it a try.”

    I think Mr. Baskin is being provocative and challenging the status quo. And, for my money, it’s about time. Glen Urban, an MIT professor, wrote a book four years ago entitled, “Don’t Just Relate -Advocate,” and that’s what Mr. Baskin is doing. And I admire him for it.

    He’s getting attention and challenging us to meet the historic opportunity referenced by Sir Sorrell and steer the conversation towards how we are going to do that and not use the tainted language of branding. Let’s jump on it. Our scientists are telling us we are running out of time.

  7. […] joining this discussion, you may want to first read the two posts that sparked this dialog, “Brands Are Dead, (Really?)” and “Brands Are Dead. (Really?) Part 2.” While discussion on this topic is far […]

  8. […] on my post “Brands Are Dead. (Really?),” Ruth Ann Barrett has written what she labels, “a Call to Arms about why branding may […]

  9. There is something to be said.. seriously said about branding effectiveness and more informed people became about everything. WIth you post and the countless YouTube posts, with the thousands of blogs and even the hundreds of books… the magic of communications that create a true brand position has lost it’s wonder. Can one’s brand affinity be seen as a mental disorder if others within the social community (online or family/friends) know the tricks that marketers and their agencies or worse…. show them where the brand position doesn’t match the experience of a trusted friend?

    Most of the people working in the marcom industry would give a different and separate definition of the terms: brand, branding, brand positioning, brand affinity, brand equity, and brand strategy.

    How brand managers have responded to “the crisis of brand” is by running what can be the equivalent of psy-ops campaigns. Trying to “join the conversation” by throwing ads and “push” messaging across the social sphere. What is slowly coming to the forefront in some savvy brand marketers is becoming not just involved but immersed in being with the customers.. showing their humanity and sharing what their business/products can help real people. Brand is not what you say… it’s what you do and do consistently. It’s the work of Century21 with BlogTalkRadio of being a good serviceable value with people in their homes.

    In short brands are live and well. What agencies and brand marketers have gotten away with in the robbery of businesses for the past decade or more… that’s another question. (RE; COKE TO AGENCIES: EARN IT)

    Langston Richardson
    Executive Creative Director at infuz
    url: | url:
    Twitter: @MATSNL65

  10. The trouble with branding is that (if it is done well) it doesn’t make a quick buck, it doesn’t result in a quantifiable ROI for the shareholders, and “branding” is invisible to average person…

    Success in “branding” might mean that the product or the company is thought of as the gold standard, or an icon of its kind.

    Unfortunately, when cuts have to be made in a corporation, the vehicle brand management center or department will be “let go” before one of the brands will be.

    One needs a “Heritage” center, and the company’s designers need to be immersed in a sense of the past… in the “form vocabulary” so they understand the visual cues that may evolve over time, but the essence is consistent, such as the kidney-shaped grille of a BMW.

    Branding is more than an advertising campaign of the moment around a badge, a nameplate, and a “high concept” sentence or two about the lifestyle of the user.

    Rowena Cherry

    • I completely agree with this! In fact it has been very enlightening on many levels to read all of these comments and of course, the article itself! Personally I still think that brand image, at least, has a lasting import and I do buy in part for the experience, even if it is only a small part – whether this is justification enough to a business is another matter!

  11. Selling allows you to eat today. Marketing prepares you to eat tomorrow. Branding allows you to eat for a decade. It’s a continuum, and they are complimentary. However, if you do them out of sequence you will 1.) Starve 2.) Get it wrong 3.) Post esoteric comments about businesses you know nothing about, 4.) look stupid to everyone but your mom.

  12. Without having read Mr. Baskin’s book, I have to say that I’ve never been fond of using the term relationship when it comes to describing what we want to foster between our Client’s brands and the consumer. I prefer customer engagement and brand experiences. Relationship implies a certain amount of intimacy – c’mon, that’s a little too much to ask. There are exceptions: e.g. consumers have definitely gotten emotive about Mini and iPod, but those instances were consumer-driven in reaction to great products.

  13. Brands are dead? Yes, and Barack Obama won the election strictly on the strength of his lifetime achievement.

  14. […] a death to brands have severely underestimated their potential. In fact, as I suggested in an earlier post, brands – true brands – may be the answer to many of our current marketing […]

  15. […] a death to brands have severely underestimated their potential. In fact, as I suggested in an earlier post, brands – true brands – may be the answer to many of our current marketing […]

  16. Great post (which everyone else says, too). In reality, the summaries of his book lead me to believe he doesn’t really know what a brand is. Reminds me a bit of the intellectual laxity I found in Naomi Klein’s book on branding. Sadly, this isn’t unusual as the Ad Biz has lost touch with the core value a brand delivers the consumer.

    Especially appreciate your note about the hyper focus on the trappings of brand (logo’s, clever creativity, etc.). I teach my upper level college classes that a brand comes from three things: ;

    – A promise to deliver something valuable.
    – The product that actually does the delivery.
    – And the executional trappings that communicate, build, enhance, clarify, et.

    McDonald’s thrives as a brand because they promise the same consistent inexpensive food everywhere and deliver it well – even when you’re in other countries. Foodies make fun of this. But families don’t – since most 5 year old’s HATE food experimentation. My family goes to Mickey D’s because we always KNOW what we’re going to get and they always deliver it.

    It is possible that what’s come to be known as “brand advertising” IS a problem. All too often lazy agency creatives seem to believe that mini-movies are the brand and that it’s okay for advertising to be unconnected with either the core promise or the product that delivers the promise.

    Shame on him for the bush-league grab for publicity.

  17. […] For the past 15 years or so, marketing directors, CFOs, CEOs, ad agencies, design firms and others have shifted from talking about brands in the abstract to branding in the specific. Branding was put into the hands of those who only saw (or perhaps only understood) its tactical manifestations: colors, logos, taglines, ads, websites, etc. The more this happened, the more these surface items became a proxy for the brand itself. The terms ‘brand’ and ‘branding’ came to be used interchangeably. As this took place, ‘branding’ became synonymous with fluff. And rightly so. Problem is, this artificial concept of branding never had anything to do with what a true brand is in the first place.” -From The Idea […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: