Monday, June 10, 2013

Welcome to the Post-Brand Era

The modern brand has a had a good run.

Born in the years after the U.S. Civil War, the modern brand owes its genesis to the near-simultaneous emergence of three mass phenomena--mass production, mass transportation and, most importantly, mass media.  The brand developed and grew over a century and a half and has, I think, reached its zenith due to the emergence of more diversified production, just-in-time delivery and, most importantly, the ubiquity of addressable (read: individualized) media.

Brands and branding will never die; nothing useful ever does.  However, the brand will recede in its importance, giving ground to ever-more personalized and individually-relevant forms of marketing.  Marketers who continue to ply the trade will have to adapt for the post-brand era.

Over the next few posts (I'm planning three, but you know how I like to prattle on), I'll outline the specifics:

  1. The brand and how it got that way
  2. What the post-brand era means
  3. How marketers should work in the post-brand era
However, let me summarize as briefly as I can.

As I said above, brands developed because manufacturers gained the ability to sell the same products across a very large country using, at first, the penny press and then moving on into new media such as color magazines, radio and most significantly, television.  Advertising replaced one-on-one salesmanship for a broad variety of products and services.

From the very beginning, this kind of advertising revolved around a promise--whiter clothes, gentle cleaning for children or the choicest materials.  The nature of this promise evolved over time from purely physical characteristics to more emotional ones.  However, brands and branding revolved around a consistent promise repeated across time and space.  Manufacturers had to adopt branding because they had no other way of getting a message out across the Republic.

This approach worked very well during the reign of mass media.  A soap-maker in Cincinnati could ask its agency in New York to buy time or space that would reach a very large portion of homes in the United States.  When the media consisted of three major TV networks and only a handful of nationally-circulated magazines that mattered, the task didn't take all that much effort.  In fact, according to cable TV, the advertising folks had plenty of time for drinking, smoking and spouse-stealing.

Then a lot of things happened.

With most consumer needs readily met, manufacturers and service providers diversified their wares.  Automakers went from small(-ish), medium and large to multiple sizes across multiple types of vehicles.  Beers arrived in light, ultra-light, dark and other kinds of styles.  Washing soaps reformulated themselves for different fabrics, different machines and even different types of water.  And so on.  FedEx and other carriers made it easy for manufacturers and retailers to get their customers products faster.

Most importantly, media outlets blossomed.  First, mass-media publications such as "Saturday Evening Post" died because their readers wanted just news, just news about pets or just news about parrots.  Radio added the FM band and an attendant increase in popularity for different genres.  AM responded by giving blowhards the ability to blow really hard.  TV added cable which, in addition to chronicling the lives of wayward advertising executives, also launched niche channel after niche channel.

And then, the Internet happened.  Not only could everyone buy just about anything from just about anywhere, absolutely everyone could say pretty much anything about anything.  And the funny ones got repeated.  A lot.

It became harder and harder for marketers to rely on simple promises in their advertising.

Accordingly, smart marketers understand that the brand can only take them so far.  They need to think less of the mass market and more in terms of many, many smaller markets.  They need to realize that consumers have the ability to up-end any promise they make, if they choose to make promises too grandly.

In sum, the dynamics of the modern market have given marketers many, many ways to skin the cat and consumers many, many ways to stay unskinned.

It's a brand new world out there.  A post-brand world.

Stay tuned for more after these messages.

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