Is Branding Dead?

Branding toolSome argue that brand loyalty is an outdated concept.

In a recent article in The New Yorker, writer James Surowiecki makes a bold assertion: There’s no such thing as brand loyalty anymore. The internet killed it, and brands are a thing of the past.

Brands, his argument goes, came about “in response to an information-poor environment.” Brands served as a useful shorthand – a general consensus about quality and reliability before word of mouth moved online. Today’s internet-savvy consumers are well-informed and care more about value than a familiar logo.

This is true, of course. Consumers can access hundreds of reviews in a couple of clicks, or ask for advice on social networks. Your advertisements might catch their eye – but friends, family and fellow consumers have their ear.

Surowiecki cites Lululemon Athletica as one example. Last year, the maker of fashionable yoga apparel was the hot new thing and expanding fast. That is, until customers raised questions about its sinking quality. The founder responded with cavalier insults instead of concern, which were amplified across the internet, and customers quickly jumped ship. A promising brand took a serious hit.

So is branding just another trend that’s had its day? The problem with Surowiecki’s definition of branding is that it’s far too narrow. What goes into creating a brand image has vastly expanded beyond a simple logo and memorable advertising.

Lululemon Athletica’s missteps don’t herald the end of brands. On the contrary, both its successes and failures provide the perfect illustration of a brand’s importance.

What’s In a Brand?

A brand starts with a promise to deliver a particular benefit, but also to deliver it in a way that’s unique in the marketplace – a unique product or service, message, philosophy, lifestyle or look. From there, a brand is built on every experience your customers have with your company, from the home page of your website to a customer service call. (Your name, logo and tagline sum up this promise and experience, not replace it.)

Brands aren’t built quickly, but rather over a period of years and countless customer interactions. As customers see that you deliver the value promised – honestly and consistently – your company reaps the rewards. When you’ve earned brand loyalty, consumers spread the word. Your reputation becomes your marketing.

Lululemon's branding mistakeLululemon got customers bent out of shape, and its brand suffered.

This is why a brand can still be valued higher than a company’s other, more tangible assets. In B2B, where decisions can involve considerable cost and risk, this is particularly true. While a cost/benefit analysis plays a big role, few decision makers want to take a risk on an untried and untested vendor. A McKinsey & Company study found branding is at least as important as the efforts of the sales team in closing a deal.

If your brand promise is at odds with reality, or you alienate your customer base as Lululemon did, you’re obviously in for trouble. But before its founder demonstrated the “foot in mouth” yoga position, Lululemon’s brand represented a healthy lifestyle millions of consumers aspired to.

Nurture Your Brand

If your brand is such a valuable asset, how do you ensure it resonates with customers?

First, decide what your brand stands for and sincerely work to deliver that promise. In the same way the internet empowers consumers to ditch a disingenuous brand, it rewards strong brands with positive word of mouth, useful consumer insights and trust.

Second, think beyond your next campaign. Make sure your core brand values are reflected in every aspect of your business: product or service, marketing and advertising, sales efforts, customer experience and support. Communicate your brand message consistently across all channels and touchpoints.

“You’re only as good as your last product,” Surowiecki says. Show me a time when that hasn’t been the case. (Remember New Coke? Even the biggest brands get this.)

He seems to think of brands as smokescreens for conning unwitting consumers. I don’t think he gives consumers – or businesses – enough credit.

Branding hasn’t died, nor is it dying. It’s evolving with the times and technology. And that’s a good thing. Don’t try to keep customers from questioning your brand – you can’t. Strive to create a powerful one and live up to it instead.

yoga photo: Rance Costa cc


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