Earlier today Read Write Web posted a discussion of a talk Douglas Rushkoff gave at the Pivot conference. In this discussion of Rushkoff’s talk the following claims were made:
Rushkoff thinks branding is irrelevant in the age of the social network. He compares social networks to the original bazaars and marketplaces of the past. The bazaar was the center of commerce, gossip, political debate and more. He says that people weren’t interested in “branding” then – they were interested in exchanging factual (or supposedly factual) information.
I wrote a lengthy comment in reply to the post:
I will write a longer reply on my blog (which is in part all about Branding – see http://slowbrand.com) but I think Rushkoff is completely wrong.
Brands matter now more than ever before – in no small part because more companies and products are competing for attention & sales than at any time ever before in history. No longer are (most) consumers in the global marketplace limited to just a small handful of choices and options – across almost all categories (other than some which are geographic services and in most cases protected by some form of legalized monopoly or oligarchy – i.e. Internet access in the US, phone service, power etc)
It is also well worth remembering that most “brands” compete with each other even across what is often thought about as “different” categories – i.e. the movies you choose to spend money seeing compete with the games you choose to play, the types of food you buy especially meals out and all the other discretionary ways you have to spend your money and your time.
In this environment strong brands have a great deal of value – they cut through a lot of clutter, they offer clean and simple and (hopefully) authoritative ways for a discussion about a product or service to occur.
Rushkoff is also wrong in that the “Keebler Elves” are NOT the brand. They are an advertising campaign – the BRAND is Keebler (or even more specifically Keebler’s products). Pepperidge Farms has a great ad that illustrates this which is currently running on many food related cable channels – in the ad they highlight the ingredients that go into a number of their different products and then promote each of those product brands (Milano cookies for example) all under the larger rubric of the brand of Pepperidge Farms.
Without brands (and Rushkoff is his own brand) it is very hard to have a conversation about a product.
Consider the dilemma most current laptop makers and most car companies face at the moment – they have “brands” which are so cluttered and overburdened it is nearly impossible for one ThinkPad user to talk about their laptop in a way that would allow another person to buy the same product. Can you explain to me the differences between the Letter & Number combo brands for most european car companies? (BMW, Mercedes Benz and Audi in particular are egregious here). Even if you want to if can be hard to recall which letter & number combo describes the car(s) which are appropriate for a particular person in a particular stage of life & family.
In contrast strong modern brands carve out a very clearly defined message and identity. .Apple is a master of this (though they failed slightly with the iPhone 3 vs iPhone 3g) but generally Apple restricts their product lineup and defines each product (including their OS versions) with a clear brand identity and name. Mini Cooper in the car world is also quite focused even as they have been expanding their car lineup. Ford has been doing a better job than many in defining and creating new brands for their modernized lineup of cars (though they do face an uphill battle with some of their brands that have legacy implications such as Focus)
In short (okay in some length) I think that Brands are more valuable now than almost ever before – a clear, well defined brand is in many ways the price of entry to being able to be the topic of conversation between people – if you do not have a brand people can refer to when talking about your product or service then mostly those conversations won’t happen – and if they do happen you (as in the company) will almost never be able to listen or react or contribute.
Smart companies whether large or brand new know this and use clear and unique brands to form a starting point around which social engagement can occur and along with that actual sales.
This is in large part what I started this blog years ago to discuss and highlight – that Brands are if anything more important in the 21st century than at any time in the past. In a global, hyper competitive marketplace where almost every company competes with nearly every other company, Brands are a key element to business (and personal) success. A slow, smart Brand is one that builds value over time, one that allows for conversations around the product(s) or services and which offers a clear and compelling vision and identity.
Whether that brand is a personal brand or the brand of one of the largest companies in the world it is vital and valuable.
Personally I face this every day as I try to offer a clear vision and identity around what I do and what I offer to clients, partners and in the case of startups I found investors (and of course to customers). But this is not easy and it is very challenging – without a clear identity, without a strong brand, it is very difficult for others to refer to me, to talk about me, to think of me when they have a business need or meet someone who might use my services.
So I would argue that Rushkoff has it completely wrong – Brands and branding is more vital now in the era of social networks than every before – without a brand conversations about your goods and services cannot happen.