In Essays

The world’s leading ad groups are forecasting increased spending on consumer branding as economies slow and costs go up. They couldn’t be more wrong.

The claims, articulated in a recent Financial Times story, all rely on the mistaken belief that brands have “value” in excess of their functional qualities and despite contextual realities of need and price.

Put another way, they’re banking on the premise that people will pay more for imagined benefits in times when they have less financial capacity to indulge in such fantasies.

Of course, it’s all nonsense, and it comes from a befuddled theology that’s now over a century old. Anything and everything can be components of branding unless something isn’t. Brands are a combination of recognition, awareness, promises, expectations, associations, experiences, opinions, reputations, desires, aspirations, needs, fears, joys, and available disposable income.

Or not. It depends on who you ask, and often on what they’re trying to sell to you.

Brands came into being when businesses got large enough that they couldn’t interact directly and usually personally with their customers. Nascent mass media tools like newspapers, radio, and then TV provided interstitial, alternative “spaces” where companies and customers could “meet.”

Detached from the clarity and accountability of interpersonal interaction, these spaces became places for imagined attributes. Consumers were taught to pay for the ideas associated with products and services, and any concept or calculation of brand “value” depended on keeping their attention focused on ads.

Agencies and their clients made zillions. Branding also fueled tremendous economic growth as businesses cut spending on risky innovation that changed reality and instead funded marketing campaigns promoting imagined or incremental product changes.

For instance, annual changes in tail fin size on American cars helped support a generation of auto workers and their families.

Those days are long gone.

Granted, I’ve been a broken clock on this issue since I published my first book in 2008. I really thought that the Internet would recreate the transparency and immediacy of direct relationships between companies and their customers, thereby making the mushy creativity that drives most branding pretty much irrelevant.

But then came online influencers, digital targeting, and even more expensive beautiful ad campaigns to deliver the fantasies of brands to a new generation of consumers.

This time, things might be different?

Inflation, the unraveling of the global economy, more regional conflicts, distrust in authorities, and the relentless progress of climate change could finally tip the scales on the branding delusion. Companies might have to finally stop following the convenient excuses they get from their management consultants for “digital transformation” and rethink not just how they produce things, but what.

Maybe brand marketers will reject the next glossy “here’s how we’re changing the world” blather from their agencies and rethink why anybody would buy what they’re selling…and whether or not it’s truthful and sustainable (not just environmentally but over time).

Maybe this time the people behind brands chose to ignore the self-serving research that tells them what people “think” and face the prospect that folks choosing to forego buying that premium priced laundry detergent or pair of shoes isn’t a perception problem.

I don’t think the head honchos at the biggest ad agencies should be telling their clients to spend more or, as the Financial Times story notes, switch money from transactional digital marketing to “brand building” (whatever that means).

A big brand shakeout might be the best thing that ever happened to brands…and to the rest of us.

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