This article examines the way that brands have evolved from well constructed and manicured facades to fluid and independent values spaces, what I call ambient brands, where consumers gather to transact. It addresses the demise of traditional branding and the opportunity that new branding represents in driving transformational change towards sustainability and socially responsible business practices.
Branding has been in rapidly evolving state for the last few years. For a long time, since the emergence of consumerism in the 1950’s, branding was an exercise in fantasy and fiction for the purpose of creating the greatest possible product appeal. Several iterations of change have occurred since the advent of the Internet and the emergence of a savvy, super informed and newly conscientious consumer.
The fantasy factor was first to fall prey to technology in the mid 90’s. Google came along in September of 1998 and search engines and the persistent enquiries of the newly tooled consumer forced corporations to be, at least, wary of making untrue claims. To be fair, it wasn’t so much that marketers were innately dishonest but more a case of consumers not asking a lot of questions. That changed as technology fed growing consumer awareness and then this awareness pushed the use of technology in checking up on corporate behavior. This interdependent cycle of information and awareness caused the huge explosion in the debate about corporate responsibility and drove a rapid innovation in technologies that map and measure impact and create transparency and accountability around consumption. Consumers quickly got accustomed to asking questions and getting answers and their interest in and response to brands went beyond product and into process. The brand narrative changed to incorporate powerful new themes including sustainability, environmentalism, free trade and so on but corporations were still able to manage, to a large extent, the way in which they represented themselves relative to these themes.
What happened next happened incredibly quickly and put a decisive end to traditional corporate brand management and the very notion of the brand itself. Social networking and viral media eclipsed the corporation’s ability to fully own and represent their identities and brands moved out of the corporate and into the consumer realm. Tools like Wikipedia skipped nimbly past ads and PR and modified the search return definitions of companies and products to what customers, and not corporations, were saying about them. People used peer reviews, blogs and amalgamated shopping sites like Amazon to get around even the most honest brand promises. Quality, design and emerging consumer values rose to replace traditional name-brand equity and status symbolism (flash) as evidenced nationwide by trendy hipsters lining up to trade in BMW’s for a Prius. An “economy” car and a famously ugly one at that.
Viral social media marketing was like “word of mouth” on steroids and opened up opportunities for gutsy start-ups like Tom’s Shoes and Ethos Water, allowing them to succeed with big ideas, a social conscience and virtually no paid advertizing whatsoever. People purchasing those products were not just picking up another pair of shoes, as it were. They were buying into an idea and a set of values. The idea was social responsibility and conscientious consumption and that ultimately became a brand in itself. This was pretty revolutionary. A fluid and contextual brand not associated with any one company and with a huge community of loyal consumers and a strict code of entry. Now, instead of companies creating brands and hanging them up like so much window dressing, they had to apply for membership of newly independent, consumer defined brands with names like Green, Fair Trade and Organic. They did this by aligning themselves, or pretending to, with the values that those brands represent.
So, to bring us present, brands started as highly stylized representations of things but have ultimately floated away from things all together to become shifting collections of values and expectation. Sort of virtual spaces where consumers gather to discuss, compare and transact based on their own personal values rather than loyalty to any particular company. Of course brands still represent the offerings of independent companies but they are judged in the context of larger, social and values brands. A new generation of businesses exists to gather together goods and services in the same “values family” and make it easy for consumers to find them. Concierge sites like Greenhome.com and informational tools like The Good Guide help consumers navigate the maze of green goods. Cooperatives like CSA; Community Supported Agriculture, thrive by gathering the values based offerings of multiple different small businesses and representing them as a single product that operates much like a traditional brand with a simple interface for consumers.
It’s easy to see why the brand and marketing community has spent the last couple of years collectively flapping its hands and trying to get its head around these changes. Posting discussions with titles like “Is branding dead?” and “The end of the brand as we know it.” The drama kicked off around the central question; “How do we say nice things about nasty business practices when consumers keep asking pesky questions and finding better ways to get answers?” Well the answer is “You can’t but Hyper growth in awareness and technology changed that question to “What is a brand these days and who owns it?” How could companies protect their identities, influence consumers and engender loyalty in the era of user generated content and social networking.
Actually the consumer products industry has been relatively quick to adapt in terms of cleaning up their act and dealing with the most immediate horrors of things like child labor and unfettered pollution. Scandals like Nike’s 2001 child labor debacle and the Exxon Valdez oil spill got everybody’s attention. Business as a whole however remains much better at cleaning brands than it is at cleaning business practices and green washing abounds. In a way though, this negative is part of the much larger positive of ever rising consumer expectations and the growing recognition that corporations and not governments are probably going to carry through the most meaningful changes in the way we consume. Frogs like Walmart and HP are turning into modern day princes of sustainability by using their incredible buying power to push change down through their supply chains to the source. Companies like BBMG and Green Order have emerged to evolve and articulate the new language that these companies need to communicate and actually commune with consumers in the shared values space I define as brand. Technology and independent monitoring continue to enhance transparency while transformation has made the leap from being defined as an expense to being framed as opportunity and even survivability for many companies.
This is a complex evolution with a multitude of faces and many moving parts but I see within it, an opportunity for the marketing and branding industry to play a huge role in driving change towards sustainability. By consistently and rigorously reinforcing higher consumer expectations of reform through clear and effective messaging, the powerful, early adopters will make change an imperative for all other businesses wishing to remain competitive. The skilled wordsmiths who have excelled at making bad choices seem like good ones should be more than adept at making good choices seem like… good choices. Also, speaking from my own perspective, there is something much more exciting and rewarding about creating strategies for values based change rather than profit motive alone even if they end up being the same thing. If it sounds like I am getting carried away, and it feels a little like I am, we can go to emerging data that demonstrates that workers are more productive and less likely to leave jobs in which they experience a sense of personal satisfaction. Through a larger lens this means our economy will function better if we do a better job of communicating value through values where it exists. Communications are a key part of that equation.
There is an important “get real” factor here with a clear need to shift the narrative around sustainability to make it accessible and appealing to the mainstream business community. This is another place where branding and marketing can drive change. Effective messaging can combat the perception that sustainability is expensive, impractical or political. A great deal of work is being done to prove out the business case for many types of reform. The benefits of energy savings, reduced legal liability, higher worker productivity and reduced attrition are real motivations for adoption in small and medium sized businesses that still think this is somebody else’s revolution.
Reality has a way of following in the pathway of possibility. Scientific and technological development pushes towards what we believe we are capable of. The challenge for new branding is to define and articulate those possibilities and broadcast them to society as a whole. Changing expectations will change behavior and economics, it is often forgotten, is behavioral science. If branding does its work well in support of sustainability and social responsibility, some part of the rest will surely follow. In practical terms this means that every project is an opportunity for branders to communicate the benefits of membership to broader social brand to their clients. They can then demonstrate why those clients should and must authentically meet the criteria for that membership by making real, incremental yet meaningful change. Sustainability as a clearly defined part of branding methodology could do a huge amount to effect the mission and subsequent development of all companies. It’s an exciting time to be in brands.