Imagine two contrasting scenarios — a child shouting out in joy and glee on hearing the bells of the friendly neighbourhood ice cream truck on a hot summer afternoon and the same child shouting out in frustration when he or she fails to cross a level in their favourite game on a Nintendo Game Boy console. The first scenario is a product defined joy, while the second is a brand (or should I say branded experience) induced frustration.
Brands seduce, provide joy, induce frustration and then die. When they die, the grief and loss is temporary (lasts a few seconds) and is then immediately replaced by another brand (or branded experience). The death of brands is meta-physical. They die in our minds but continue to exist in the physical realm. In the world of brands and branding, there are two kinds of deaths — death in the consumers’ minds (fleeting, cyclical and repetitive) and death in physical reality (going out of business, loss of distribution, becoming irrelevant or wilting under competitive pressure).
A brand’s meta-physical life cycle is too short these days. Do brands stop and wonder as to why that is so? Are they themselves responsible for shortening their life spans? Things change and change is invariably very painful. Why do brands inflict so much self-created pain on themselves? What’s with all this appendages, extensions, needless innovations, transformations, underplays and overplays, outreach, being digitally native, becoming agile etc.? As human beings are, strong brands are incredibly resilient. Can brands adopt resilience as a virtue rather than the next digital platform to advertise on? Can brands be built using a vision of their role in the wider society and not by the misguidance of the next door neighbours’ habits? Can we build brands that add meaning to life?
Proliferation is a disease borne out of ignorance. Brands proliferate because they are ignored. Ignorance is a human trait, and it can be construed as positive or negative depending on a situation. For brands, ignorance manifests itself through a lack of engagement. We ignore things when they don’t have any meaning. Similarly, brands are ignored when they don’t have any meaning. Human beings strive for change and are purposefully bored (we crave to be bored so that we can justify change). Strong brands need to glide through the peaks and troughs of excitement and boredom. This is where resilience comes into play.
Brands and branded experiences are meant to create conversations these days. Conversations is the new advertising. But how are these conversations being created? They are being created in an increasingly isolated, distracted and confused world. Social selling, online communities and going viral are the new buzzwords today. Is there a productive outcome for brands from these? Brands still can’t define engagement, and they can’t link the “millions of likes” and “thousands of shares” with unit sales churning through sales tills. Sales tills have also disappeared from the physical world and increasingly now exist in our screens (big, medium and small, neon-lit and which keeps us awake at night).
Consider the yesteryear’s brand buyer — slow and patient, no frills, loyal and advocates. The Nokia 3310 came back and became a nostalgia item. Why we should ask? How does a conversation between brands among our fathers and grandfathers compare to one of ours? Which conversation would have a higher share of praise and a silent appreciation of faults with odes of patience? Majority of social media conversations around brands is “noise”, which even the most highly trained, AI induced analytical engines fail to decipher. Sentiment analysis has been a technological feature struggling to find its feet. Technology’s failure to prop up or camouflage a brand’s weakness is rampant and omnipresent. Where technology failed, design is trying its best. But will design be a driver of a brand’s success? Probably not unless it is meaningful (and not experimental). The cracks are surfacing but there is not enough asphalt to fill them, because the previous one refuses to wedge.
The number of meaningless debates have exponentially increased, while meaningful conversations are becoming extinct. The sense of finesse has been lost, while the number of insults, criticisms, outrages and slime dunking has increased. Brands have started accepting everything at face value, which is why brand building decisions are now taken based on streams of consciousness, rather than meaningful conversations and debates.
Effective brand building is on the decline, while peripheral brand tinkering is on the rise. Very few brands have resisted the tide of obfuscation while the majority have succumbed to it.
The rhetoric around brand building is building up to a crescendo. We now, erroneously believe, that brands are built through appendages. What are these appendages? They come in various shapes and sizes. They include add-ons, freebies, platforms, apps, channels, touchpoints etc. At the end of the day, only one thing matters — meaningful delivery. Brands are subjected to waves of enthusiasm one day, which then reduce themselves to pitiful utterances the next week. So called trends influence brand building, while in reality they close shop akin to a street having 20 different curry houses serving the same fare.
Connectivity has enabled crap to have a wider impact, while previously the influence was on a few. Consequently, meaningless utterances lead to share prices drop off a cliff, and words uttered while sitting on a loo go viral. Brands jump on them and believe that their life depends on managing this nonsense. We type more than talking these days, which is reflected in the shallowness of our opinions and beliefs. We seem to portray that we now hold more educated and strong viewpoints on what brands are and what they should be, but in reality our self-belief is as weak as a child swayed by a lollipop in a check out aisle.
Size does matter (and it always did). How do brands measure size these days? Not by the meaningful impact they have or can create, but by the size of their online followers, trending hashtags, number of likes and dislikes, number of re-tweets and shares and by the number of times a crappy digital video appeared in a social media feed (where 1 second of viewing is counted as an exposure). Our conversations have lost a lot of meaning. We don’t use meaningful and expressive words, but more acronyms, abbreviations, terms, terminologies and jingoism. No wonder, copyrighting is a lost art.
Brands are created because someone is willing to sell and someone is willing to buy. This is the basic premise on which businesses are built and a business sells a brand. We have now gone into a “pretend” mode — brands are pretending they are selling while consumers are pretending they are buying. Conversations don’t influence brand funnel engagement, they confuse it. Sometimes linear is better and non-linear is inefficient. Take baby foods for example — conversations have entered the realm in terms of communities of moms, healthcare professionals, support functions etc. But loyalty towards a brand of baby food remains steadfastly strong as a baby grows and goes through what marketers have coined as “stages”. We don’t change medicines like we change our social media profile headlines. We stick to a brand of medicine that a doctor has prescribed. When we get a viral infection and is prescribed a 7-day or 10-day antibiotics course, and the doctor says “see it through”…we do!!! So wherever we don’t stick to our choices (or see it through) points to two things — our choices are frivolous and changing them makes no difference to us (as they are easy). Brands should take note that if consumer choices are frivolous then they are too, because the choice is on buying one brand over another.
Unfortunately knowledge today is not empowering anymore when it comes to brands. Brand activism is like fringe movement, trying to vie for morsels of attention, while fully knowing that the level of influence it will ever achieve will be minuscule. Consumer empowerment to make intelligent brand choices is not empowerment at all — it is confusion and a sense of feeling overwhelmed. Empowerment increases a sense of meaning in our lives. When a 50+ year old individual re-skills himself or herself and finds something new to do or engage in, that is empowerment. Discovering the fact that you can now post pictures of your half drunk coffee cup on Instagram is not empowerment — it is a need to share and feel connected. Brands mistakenly believe that enhanced connectivity means that consumers are more discerning. We are actually less discerning than what we used to be 10 years ago.
The conversational economy in its current state is a confused mix of egos and opinions. It is not an efficient marketplace for buyers and sellers to operate. It is a potpourri of leaky buckets that minimise the efficiency of brand building investments. It doesn’t build brands but fragments them. The conversational economy needs a re-wiring and these won’t be done by consumers, but by brands themselves.
It is high time that brands reclaim the streets they walked on proudly (and with heads held high).
A counter ode to the original ‘The Cluetrain Manifesto’. You can read an excerpt of the first chapter here: http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/l/levine-manifesto.html