Brands transcend economics (and The Economist)
The Economist focused on brands
the week before the WTC attack but its presentation of the facts
was botched through misunderstanding of the profession, says Jack
OVER the last few years, numerous texts have come out disputing
the power of brands. They mark a belated postmodern critique of
the field which, for 50 years prior, kept true to the fields of
marketing, psychology, semiotics and consumer behaviour. Now, even
The Economist has hopped on the bandwagon whose handbrake
was set off by Naomi Klein’s No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand
The Economist is the last newspaper to accept
that consumers and the market do not determine economics.
And it would have to. I agree with our free choices, too, but I
also know that if brands were all-powerful, all-conquering, The
Economist would be out of a job. Institutionalized, it has
to take the position that brands are not superior and that consumers
are the ones who dictate how brands develop.
But its September 6 article, ‘Who’s wearing the
trousers?’, is questionable in a few respects, particularly after
my own article in this magazine called ‘The moral globalist’, published
last May. This, along with some of my other articles over the last
five or six years, seem fortuitously prophetic in the branding sphere.
It’s a bit like the designers we cover in CAP’s sister magazine,
Lucire. There's a lot of good luck involved.
I will say consumers dictate brands’ fates but
The Economist presents this as though it were something new.
Hardly. It is part of old marketing, identical to the thinking that
has been accepted since World War II. It’s not the only thing the
London periodical botches.
Ms Klein doesn’t fully grasp the point. While
presenting a useful historical perspective, brands don’t brainwash.
They may have tried, but the truth always comes out.
Brands combine the freedom of communicating to
the market-place with controlling the market-place, in a game of
companies chasing consumers. Brands are both left and right if the
field could be politicized: they have an agenda of modifying the
way the audience thinks and interfering with everyday lives, but
they do so in an arena where consumer choice is paramount and respected.
The Economist points to the greater difficulty
of reaching the consumer of the new millennium. Brands, it argues,
cannot be sustained, hence Coca-Cola, Gillette and Nike are struggling.
While I don’t dispute that brands need to be re-evaluated—perhaps
this is my own interests talking, since brand consulting is my stock
in trade—they are just as strong. After analysing how successful
online brands have made their way, and speaking about that very
topic around the world, I’m convinced more than ever that consumer
behaviour and marketing theory hasn’t changed that much. Only the
modus operandi has.
Coca-Cola is struggling because of competition.
But is it really struggling? It stands for a certain product line.
It continues to do so. Coca-Cola is in trouble primarily because
the brand cannot be extended easily. While segmentation in demographics
and the media play a part, they’re not primary causes. The Economist
Nike is struggling because of the causes I pointed
out in ‘The moral globalist’. There has been misbehaviour with Indonesian
plants that manufacture Nike goods. The consumer is more savvy and
knows this. The internet has been a great help in providing that
information and getting the word from workers’ rights groups out
to the public. The consumer is as predictable as ever, I say, contrary
to The Economist: the consumer wants to deal with firms that
have ethics and aren’t seen as part of an establishment that slows
the world down and operates on greed. Nike has failed to follow
its brand sincerely. It has allowed the rot to get in. It’s not
a failure of branding or the unpredictable nature of consumers.
The Economist is dead wrong.
So marketing is stuck in the past. I’ll concede
that marketing procedures are stuck in the past. The internet,
at the very least, has shown us that. We need to re-evaluate, re-engineer
and refocus our efforts as marketers and brand consultants.
No, those lasting values that consumers seek have
stayed firm, and will always stay firm. It’s how we reach consumers
as brand experts that have changed. The conclusion to The Economist’s
article is the only worthwhile point, and it is a quote from my
colleague Wally Olins, who I still haven’t seen put a foot wrong
with any of his words in the last five or six years we have corresponded.
‘The next big thing in brands is social responsibility,’
almost echoing my ‘moral globalist’ message. ‘It will be clever
to say there is nothing different about our product or price, but
we behave well.’
The magazine writes, ‘Far from being evil, brands
are becoming an effective weapon for holding even the largest global
corporations to account. If we do not use them for that purpose,
as Mr Olins puts it, "we are lazy and indifferent and deserve
what we get."‘
The 2000s will be appealing to consumers who know
how to think. There will be sources that speak from either side.
Want to know more about Nike shoes? There’s plenty online. The consumer
will make the judgement and if organizations behave, then that moral
globalist could emerge. The firm with social responsibility that
unites the world isn’t a pipe dream: it’s the only logical reality
in a more marketing-savvy, tired-of-TV, tired-of-BS audience. Jack
PS.: This month's Entrepreneur is similarly anti-branding
but we have yet to review the article.JY
in Wellington and New York, Jack Yan is editor of CAP and
CEO of Jack Yan & Associates
and its branding subsidiary, JY&A
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