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Above: The Economist itself has a brand—or several brands, in fact—so it should have understood the forces at work far better

Related links

  • ‘The moral globalist: making globalization work' (May 2001)
  • The Economist
  • Klein: No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (paperback edition, $13·60)
  • Klein: No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (hardcover edition, $19·60)

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    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 Yan

    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 Bullies.
       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 misses that.
       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 Yan Editor

    PS.: This month's Entrepreneur is similarly anti-branding but we have yet to review the article.—JY

    Based in Wellington and New York, Jack Yan is editor of CAP and CEO of Jack Yan & Associates and its branding subsidiary, JY&A Consulting.

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