As we'll discuss, marketing has evolved into the post-brand era, a time in which the traditional promise-driven brand means less than it used to mean. Instead, alternative approaches--largely addressable--have emerged to challenge the brand's dominance. In other words, we can no longer build marketing campaigns around a single idea and must instead complement branding with other approaches to convince audiences.
However, before delving into the post-brand era, we should spend some time defining the brand era and how it got that way. Simply put, the brand as we know it today arose in 19th Century America to serve manufacturers and service providers amidst changing technologies. They used brands to augment and/or replace traditional salesmanship.
Understanding the 19th-century technologies that led to the rise of brands will help us give context to the 20th- and 21st-century technologies that currently challenge the brand construct.
Brand advertising would not exist had three mass technologies come to the fore in United States in the decades around the Civil War. Mass production, mass transportation and--most crucially--mass media all played a role.
- Mass production While interchangeable parts predated Eli Whitney's famous standardized musket production, they found a ready audience in the early 19th century, both in the U.S. and the U.K. Manufacturers could now crank out essentially identical items using cheap labor. It became cost-effective to mass-produce a wide number of finished goods. Moreover, any one of these goods would work as well as any other produced by the same pattern.
In short, mass production enabled the consistency that has become a sine qua non of branding.
- Mass transportation Before railroads, manufacturers had severe physical limits to their markets. Most could not sell anything in quantity beyond a few day's travel in expensive animal-drawn carts. Once railroads overcame technical hurdles, the calculus of market size changed. Now, marketers could sell the same goods anywhere the railroads could reach.
While railroads (and, to a lesser degree, clipper ship packet service) created opportunities for manufacturers, they also created a major challenge: selling. When a tinsmith sold cookware out of his workshop, he needed only to hang out a sign and glad-handle his neighbors for business. On the other hand, a cookware factory had too much product to sell in any one market but no obvious way to make consumers in other markets aware of, much less interested in, its products. While many factories employed traveling salesmen, this solution provided a merely arithmetic increase in sales despite a geometric increase in production. In more contemporary terms, traveling salesmen didn't scale well.
- Mass media Fortunately for manufacturers, mass media provided that ability to increase sales efforts geometrically. Newspapers had existed for ages, but they circulated to a small list of subscribers who paid for their entire writing, editing and printing. The advent of steam-driven presses made mass circulation possible by slashing the cost of printing.
In 1833, Benjamin Day launched The Sun, the first penny paper. By 1835, the paper had a daily circulation of 19,000. Naturally, advertising became the ingredient that allowed Day to sell his newspaper so quickly and so broadly.
Other media would emerge to challenge newspapers' advertising success--radio and TV most notably. However, newspapers pioneered the model of using advertising to subsidize an information or entertainment channel on a broad scale.
This "reason why" approach would take many names. Rosser Reeves, of Ted Bates & Company (later absorbed into Saatchi & Saatchi), would pen the term Unique Selling Proposition, or USP. Other marketers would use terms such as Focus of Benefit or Main Idea, but the concept became universal in the industry.
Of course, the nature of the USP would change as well. Hopkins envisioned the USP as a distinctly physical property--something that only one brand could say, such as use of a specific ingredient or an endorsement from a prominent individual. Later, especially during the Creative Revolution of the 1960s, agencies would inject increasingly emotional or even psychological insight into the USP. Again, however, the role of the USP as the North Star of a campaign remained the same.
Moreover, this approach worked. People began to associate ads or their taglines with products and from there, bring them into the vernacular. Some jingles even became top 40 hits. With TV, radio, billboards and print at their disposal, marketers could blanket the country with an idea, an idea that overcame objections and in turn encourage consumers to buy what they had to sell.
As I said, it worked. Until it didn't.