Are we heading into a post-brand society (i.e., brands matter much, much less)?

Walmart, often seen as a business “in power” in some way in the US is closing 269 stores.

For awhile, high-end retailers were seen as doing better in the new economic reality, but now they are also struggling.

OK, we know the economy ain’t what it used to be, and I think end-state capitalism is eating itself alive. But I think there’s something else at work too, and this is what I’d like to talk about: the “don’t give a shit principle” and how it affects brands.

Over the last 100 years, and especially over the last 50, we’ve gone from a society eager to consume new information and products to society overloaded with new information and products. Even in the last 20 years, the change has been big. Remember the days when you went into a store eager for products jump out at you because, to a large extent, that’s how you found out about products? Yes, it’s hard to remember, but, for example, I would go into a book or record store hoping to find something interesting. If you wanted to find out about records, you had to listen to the radio, talk to friends, read Rolling Stone, thumb through the Trowser Press Record Guide or just look at what was in stores. That was “giving a shit.”

When people get overloaded with something, they get hostile and disdainful about it. This is human nature. For example, when a business has a critical position to fill and receives only a few resumes, the HR manager will be looking for the best in each one, hoping that there is potential there. Compromises in terms of degree, experience, and so on can likely be made. If, on the other hand, the same business is flooded with thousands of resumes, the manager will be establishing arbitrary criteria by which to toss resumes wholesale into the trash.

And so it is with consumption. Not too long ago, famed sales guru Zig Ziglar made a living selling pots and pans door to door. Pots and pans. There was enough hunger after WWII for just about any kind of product that people took an interest. Nowadays, cookware is that stuff you buy wherever for cheap when the nonstick coating wears off the frying pan (or you’re into cooking and are buying cast iron or copper and giving a shit, but the point still stands).

In such a world, advertising really works, and brands are sales dynamite. And the whole theory of branding was coming into being just as that huge post-War consumption and giving-a-shit wave was peaking. Brands attracted the eye and interest of people entering that valuable source of information, the store.

Yet… as soon as brands really became big, they started dying (IMHO). Branding bloviation seemed to peak in the early 2000s. Here’s a book I read soon after it came out in 2002: [Managing the Customer Experience: Turning customers into advocates](Managing the Customer Experience: Turning customers into advocates). The twats who wrote this even went so far as to register a trademark for “Branded Customer Experience.” Lulz. They waxed poetic about how a bunch of businesses were doing the right thing, such Virgin Atlantic, a company that is doing shithouse the last time I checked. Like the book In Search of Excellence back in the 80s, I’m sure if one were to look at all the companies they praise, most wouldn’t be doing that great or at least would not be seen as paragons of the customer experience these days.

The book is going on 14 years old, but it already seems like something from a different world. Why? Because it’s about roping in people who give a shit. Do this, do that, and people will be ADVOCATES! Who even thinks like that any more?

If anything, businesses are stripping away brands to give people cheaper stuff. Forever 21 and H+M are popular with “the kids” and are pretty much as un-brand as it gets. Meanwhile, Ambercrombie and Fitch is going down the shitter (good fucking riddance). Fast cuisine has been replacing mid-level sit-down restaurants. Bulk foods have eaten away at the profits of packaged foods. Private label has been big since the 90s and isn’t going away; rather, businesses like Trader Joe’s have taken it to the next level. And so on.

A couple caveats. When I say people don’t give a shit about brands, I do not mean that they no longer use the names of producers as a way to access the same fit, flavor, quality, etc. Of course they do. What I mean is that brands are much less effective at getting people’s attention, and people are much less apt to form any kind of emotional attachment to them.

The other caveat concerns luxury brands and conspicuous consumption. I think that this is only superficially related to the 90s-style branding guruhood, which was all about encouraging mass consumption. Yet my guess is that the “don’t give a shit” principle will have a negative effect on luxury brands as well, though I can’t back that up beyond citing the downturn in luxury retail, per above (and untangling that from economic reasons would be exceedingly difficult).

I’m an MBA and work in advertising, though I write 95% for Japanese companies. I’m not a guru and hate the guru pose, so this is just what I see from my perspective. Obviously, these are generalizations across the whole population (I’m mainly thinking of the US, but this probably applies to most developed countries). Some is also extremely obvious, but here goes:

• People are overloaded with information and their filters are constantly up. They already feel they know what they want and need and are extremely selective about letting anyone in to tell them otherwise. I.e., they don’t give a shit about your product or your pitch.

• When people do want further information, they will go out and read reviews on Amazon, Yelp, etc. They take a more objective approach than people used to and can’t easily be swayed by advertisements or even a really nice branding package.

• True excellence is the only thing that counts and people will only take the best that you have to give. E.g., they won’t buy into the brand of your restaurant; they will only order the things from the menu that they truly love and get other stuff elsewhere. The atmosphere of a restaurant also counts as excellence, however, so I’m not saying that people don’t love specific places overall.

• People will drop any “brand” like a hot potato if that potato has, well, E. coli! E.g., Chipotle. That is, it’s all about “what have you done for me lately”; there is no loyalty whatsoever.

• People are price-conscious as never before, and that’s never going away again, no matter how well the economy does going forward (snirk).

So suppose you have a product–what is one to do in 2016? How do you impress people, reach people, etc.? Well, it’s extremely difficult. Here’s my take:

• Make your product life-changingly excellent, extremely cheap, or best: life-changingly excellent and cheap but not so cheap as to seem cheap. I.e., hit the sweet spot of value. Sounds obvious, right? Yet, when I’ve done networking events (a trend that seemed to die here in Indy around 2008–fun while it lasted), the unspoken assumption always seemed to be you could sell anything if you could just sell it. But how many people had a product that really blew people away? Very few. Is hard to make a truly excellent product? Abso-fuckin’-lutely. And by “life-changingly excellent” I mean a product that makes even a small difference in someone’s life. E.g., the average person will by the cheap non-stick pan at the supermarket instead of the truly excellent copper pan because the different the copper pan makes won’t make a difference to them. But your amateur and pro chefs will buy the copper if it is truly excellent.

Example of success: I’ve gone to restaurant Black Market in Indy after a bit of a hiatus, and I am really impressed. Great food they make from scratch, great drinks, servers who actually seem into their jobs, great atmosphere, and the kicker is that it isn’t even that expensive. It’s trendy without being an asshole about it. I’d take this place over 95% of the high-end joints in NYC (and I love dining out in NYC). The place is pretty packed at night and on the weekends. We all know places like this that do everything right. And we go back. Most restaurants and businesses for that matter don’t really even try.

• Advertise first and foremost to the people who already care deeply. People enjoy reading marketing literature when they are into something. Get that content up online and talk to people in a non-fake, non-corporate way. People will come to your content. Note: This doesn’t apply to a whole bunch of products. I.e., no one’s going to read a blog or social media posts about toilet paper. Put ads where people are going to be eager to see them. E.g., if you make high-end camera lenses, (some) people will read your ad if it’s in a camera magazine. Does even this kind of advertising work very well? Probably not, but it’s about all there is left.

Example of success: Vine and Table in Indy sends out a good newsletter with products they get in that are truly curated by knowledgeable people and written about well. I’ve ordered three things based on their emails. It’s useful content, not spam.

• If you can truly do interactive stuff like online communities or social media in an organic (i.e., related to the product, not just tacked on) way, do so. How often is this effective? Probably not very much.

Example of success: Beer Advocate has a good site where you can rate beer and read ratings, etc. It’s not run by a beer company (that I know of), but it’s an example of getting people who give a shit about a product category to come together and, in essence, advertise to each other.

The above is long but I felt like getting my thoughts down on the matter. Thanks for reading, and I eagerly await your own insights!

That’s a long OP.

Some thoughts:

  • We have experienced revolutions in robot manufactoring, quality control, etc. Six Sigma, TQM, etc. So in many categories, many offerings are of equivalent quality, so switching costs are reduced.

  • Brand is evolving as a concept. You can brand eco-systems (e.g., Apple vs. Android) methods of payment, forms of convenience/experiences, etc. So some uses of Brand may lose value, but Brand remains and is being applied in our brave new world. Have to cite David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest as a powerful commentary on the pervasiveness of Brand Culture.

  • With previous channels being subverted - i.e., forced commercials on TV - brand integration via product placement and other, (sometimes) more subtle approaches may actually establish a deeper link to the brand.


Good point! Quality used to be a huge sales point. Now, it’s simply expected as a matter of course.

It’s another good point. And the ubiquity of branding in turn drives the value of any given brand. I.e., more overload for the synapses.

Does that really “win hearts and minds,” though? Or is that simply a method of infiltration to get the products at least some attention?

If done well, product placement produces a deeper bond. ET movie with Reese’s Pieces is a decent cite: it was done for practical reasons (M&M’s said No) and RP’s sales went through the roof.

By the same token, watch a music performance show. The guitars used are branded (duh) but not discussed. Gibson has been really looking to get back into this, after years of Taylor winning the wars. Watching your favorite artist use a specific brand is never explicitly discussed outside guitar mags, but influences sales. And once you are a ABC player, that maker has a great opportunity to build a lifelong association.

Good example. I wonder how well that would work today, however. I guess the right product with the right star in the right movie…

Yes, this is a good “organic” example: people who use the things setting an example for people aspiring to use the things.

An obvious counter example to this in recent years has been the popularity of celebrity headphones. Ever since Beats By Dre came out in '08 there have been a slew of celebrity endorsed and branded headphones, some of which have sold like hotcakes. The consensus seems to be that other products give you better quality for the same $$$ but I suppose don’t have the style/cultural cachet that Beats et al have or at least had until recently.

Definitely a counter-example. It can working and, in fact, there will always be some sort of brand blowing up. I just think it’s much harder than in days past…

Maybe I’m looking at different types of products, but my local mall is one big branding experience, and it seems like every brand keeps expanding into new areas, taking its followers with it: Michael Kors, Juicy Couture, Tory Burch, Betsey Johnson, Kenneth Cole, Hugo Boss, DKNY…

In clothing, handbags, shoes, beauty, accessories, jewelry, and especially perfume, which is about 99.9% branding, brand is everything. Some women I know are absolutely brand-obsessed, and must have Tiffany jewelry, or Louis Vuitton handbags, or Louboutin shoes. I have a large number of Ralph Lauren branded items, mostly because I like the quality and fit, but I probably didn’t really need to get Ralph Lauren eyeglasses (or Coach sunglasses).

Your perspective is interesting, but it certainly doesn’t square with my day-to-day experience, in which branding still seems to be king.

What you say is all true, but those are the luxury goods I talked about in the OP, which I put in a different category.

High-end retail is definitely suffering these days. It was a terrible Christmas for Saks and Nordstrom. Presumably, those branded goods sold less than they did in the past. The question is whether that has to do exclusively with economic factors or with people caring less about those luxury brands. Or both. I don’t know.

I don’t think luxury brands are ever going to go away: conspicuous consumption is too hard-wired into our status-seeking brains. And some luxury products are truly excellent and deserve to be bought. I have a Gucci wallet that I bought in 2006 that still looks great, and I don’t see it wearing out for the next 20 years or so. I bought it because I liked it and the quality was excellent, not to show off.

Is Nordstrom still carrying a large inventory of Polo Ralph Lauren clothing? The problem with that brand is that it’s long been available for cheap in factory outlet malls.

I don’t think they are.

Yeah, that’s another trend that isn’t talked about much, and I hadn’t even thought of it myself when writing the OP: brand devaluation. Another example is Godiva. When I was a kid in the 70s, I remember my dad bringing home a box he had received as a business gift. It was extremely expensive and only made in Europe at the time, I believe. Quite exclusive. Now it’s become, literally, gas station chocolate. Lindt was not originally so high and mighty but it’s gone from mid-level to quite common.

Now that may have been a profitable move for Campbell’s which owns Godiva, but I wonder how many people really revere the Godiva name, think if it as something really awesome. My guess is not many. People may like it, they may have their particular favorite bar or truffle, but I think there are very few “Godiva advocates” out there.

Totally speculative, but it seems like as disposable income continues to trend downward for most people, price sensitivity takes precedence over anything that has to do with brand. This certainly doesn’t apply to everything equally but I can imagine it makes a difference whether you’re eating Chex ™ vs Crispy Hexagons (no tm)

I agree. And I think the private label trend goes hand in hand with that. You don’t have to buy a sketchy off-brand at the dollar store when you can get a private label product of equal or better quality at Trader Joe’s, Costco, Meier, etc. etc. In the mid-90s I worked for a company that produced private label products, and it really opened my eyes to the potential of that. This company sources private label for many different supermarkets. Then you have Kroger and many others doing it on their own.

What I’ve noticed is that celebrity-associated brands have become commonplace. So if you go into KMart or Target or Macy’s you’ll find items from the Jaclyn Smith, Shaun White, Martha Smith, Rachael Ray, Ming Tsai, Donald Trump or whose ever collection/brand. Many of these people aren’t fashion experts, but the stores seem to think people will buy stuff associated with a celebrity.

Brands can be extremely valuable, and many today continue to have high value. Apple is considered the most valuable brand today.

To keep your brand value high, you have to invest and maintain it.

An example of a recent transaction that was completely related to brand value was the Hostess transaction in 2013. Hostess had gone bankrupt. If you recall Twinkies and Ding Dongs were gone from the shelves as the company could no longer pay for the pension obligations associated with the employees of the too many bakeries they operated across the US.

An investor group acquired all of the brands and only 5 of the bakeries for just over $400 million. The bulk of the purchase price was allocated to the brand value. It doesn’t take a lot of know how to make baked snack goods. But the brands are extremely valuable, because consumers know and recognize the brands.

There are several good arguments for the continuing, even growing importance of brands–some of them in the OP.

Just so. There’s little reason to think that Chipotle’s food handling practices are much worse than many similar chains’ (not a defense), but the association with their brand was unbreakable.

As someone trying to build a brand I have to say my experience is almost the polar opposite of the OP. My distillery makes rum (kind of) and I’ve had two bars turn down picking up my rum because they want the brand that people have heard of, Bacardi, rather then as they admit my superior rum. In one case the owner told me he just wasn’t certain if people would care about the difference in quality but might care if their brand wasn’t on the shelf. In the other case the liquor buyer wanted to pick us up and another craft brand but was told by the ownership group that they wanted a ‘premium’ well and that meant all name brands not quality.

We are in the process of creating a concentrated group of people who prefer our rum and ten ‘selling’ them to various accounts by basically telling them where they can find our product closer to their homes. Most people I talk to have their favorite brand for each type of alcohol that they drink so maybe branding is just dead for non consumable products?

My own experience simply as a consumer over my middle aged life so far is an increasing reliance on brand, simply because of the information overload. My patience for searching and reading reviews is limited. If I have good experience of a brand and they make what I need then I may very likely buy it.

I also will rely on a well known brand because my experience has been that they can mostly be relied on to make things right if something goes wrong with a product, where an unknown brand is an unknown quality in that regard as well. A well known brand feels like less of a risk. Indeed in this instant information sharing age a brand has a very great incentive to fix damage quickly before someone tweets about it.

While it is true that Walmart is closing a lot of stores, they’re opening more than they are closing.

Though, in my mind, that supports your argument, since Walmart is about buying stuff cheap and not about brands.

IMO the economy has always been stratified into layers with lesser or greater discretionary spending. Part of that discretion is choosing to buy snooty brand over upscale mainstream brand over mainstream brand over down-market brand over no-name. e.g. Someone buying the same number of shirts, just different sorts of shirts depending on their paycheck and their personal frugal-o-meter.

As the lower-middle, middle and upper-middle classes get stretched like taffy in a machine there are more and more folks moving their purchases down-market. Meanwhile the fortunes of the 1%-and-up crowd are skyrocketing. As is their deliberately conspicuous consumption.

As a result the value of the seriously snooty brands is going way, way up. As are sales of unknown no-name products, which soon enough will be seen as known no-name brands. Walmart’s or Aldi’s house brands being obvious examples.

The OP mentioned Trader Joe’s. TJ’s is essentially an upscale presentation of a down-priced knockoff of Whole Foods. Yes, TJ’s actually came first in history, but in terms of their current positioning I think I’m spot on. They’re Whole Foods for the people who can no longer afford Whole Foods. Like me.

So depending on which level you’re looking at you’ll see brands thriving or dying.
Different idea:

Brands apply to both products and channels. In clothing Ralph Lauren is a brand. But so is / was Macy’s, Dillard’s, & Nordstrom’s. I don’t mean their house brands of clothes. I mean that when you think “I need a nice shirt”, one or another of those store names pops to mind. It has the recognition and the list of favorable attributes (e.g. price range, location, presentation quality, social cachet, whatever) that you recognize as fitting your idea of you.

The crushing presences of Walmart (& Target?) in the B&M world and Amazon in the online world mean that retail channel brands like Macy’s *et al *are being flushed directly to the ashheap of history. The channel is meaningless; only the product matters.
My Bottom line:
The OP’s contention will be very true if he’s looking at branding channels. And if he’s looking at branding mid-market products.

But it’ll be less evident to maybe even wrong when looking at seriously upscale brands (Audemars Piquet) and at cheapo brands (Kirkland).