Thoughts & Notions

What if Brands Didn’t Exist?

  Some people think brands are inherently evil; others see them as status symbols. This, of course, leads back to the question of how you define brand. Regardless of your definition, brands serve a multitude of functions. As navigation tools, they guide organizations in their efforts and allow consumers to identify and differentiate products. Without brand identity (names, logos, trade dress…) we wouldn't be able to discern one product, store, or service from another. How would we make a repeat purchase, or avoid one? What do you think the brand apocalypse would look like?  

60 Responses to “What if Brands Didn’t Exist?”

  1. "Some people think brands are inherently evil" Two things on this then I'll get to the overall post.

    1. If this exists then I suspect it may be wrapped into the fact that people think corporations are evil to some extent.
    2. "think" ah, we know that consumers don't think at all when it comes to the purchase decisions they make so I would doubt that any thinking regarding brands being evil or not would have any effect on their purchase decisions whatsoever. It's more like feel and that you can only tell from their behavior. see this: http://farisyakob.typepad.com/.a/6a00d8341ca6f253

    Now to the main issue at hand. Clearly brands exist along with the semiotics that surround them. Yahoo for that because if not, all the store shelves would look like this http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-Up2EVS8Nfg0/T3sfVOwDu9I

    ……and we wouldn't be able to enjoy all that wonderful advertising that we "think" works ;) Oh and we in adland wouldn't have a job nor would our clients have a way to sell their widgets.

    So yay for brands, no matter what anyone "thinks".

    Now the big questions is……..is it USP that really sells? Or is it the magic? Data would say the latter.

    • @manchipp says:

      It's not the USP or the Magic that sells. It’s the product.

      • Ken Peters says:

        Respectfully disagree. The magic of branding can make all the difference. Case in point: Remember when Apple launched the iPhone4 and had all the antenna issues? Consumers, tech geeks, et al, were spreading some very negative word-of-mouth online. Critics were vocal, and seemingly everywhere you clicked, yet phones flew off store shelves to the tune of three million units in the first three weeks.

        By contrast, Google’s Nexus One Android phone, launched in January of 2010 – to mostly positive reviews and online buzz – sold only 135,000 units in the same time it took Apple to move one million iPhone 4’s. Within six months Google put the kibosh on the Nexus One, once touted as the “iPhone Killer”.

        All the negative reviews and bad word-of-mouth didn’t demonstrably diminish iPhone sales. Why? Because owning an iPhone 4 isn’t just about the hardware, it’s also about the cache of cool that comes with Apple’s brand – it’s about an experience.

        That experience has been meticulously designed and marketed through years of perhaps the best corporate and consumer branding in the business. What Google and Apple demonstrate respectively is that great products without great branding can leave consumers cold, while great branding can trump negative word-of-mouth and sell an inferior product.

        • blackcoffee says:

          Don't you own an Android phone?

          *Cough*

          Mark Gallagher
          Brand Expressionist®

          • Ken Peters says:

            Only because I bought a Samsung a few months prior to the iPhone finally being available on Verizon. Might switch when it's time to upgrad :-)

        • @manchipp says:

          The Apple example (which isn't that useful as it is the exception not the rule — but let’s play anyway) — is an example of brand loyalty. Not magic or USP. (although the antenna issue was sketchy and affected some not others (mine was fine)

          This kind of thing occurs with some brands where even though the product or experience is substandard, dude to a deep brand attachment (or monopoly) — people proceed anyway.

          It happens in IKEA — a terrible customer experience, but 1 in 3 visits goes without a hitch (on average) so this bolsters confidence in the brand and supported by the hyper low cost of purchase, a further two miserable visits will be endured.

          Brand loyalty has nothing to do with magic, it is carefully measured by organisations to see how far they can push a consumer, how little they can provide, how few elements are required to keep the customer happy (enough)

          Witness the large initial portions in a new eatery, that slowly get smaller as they grow more popular… the brand loyalty built in the early days sees them through a less generous offer.

          Same with Apple. One hiccup — easily ridden thanks to years of good stuff.

          • Ken Peters says:

            Certainly brand loyalty played a part for some iPhone consumers, but not all. But, if you want, take Apple completely out of the equation and just focus on the Google offering. The phone was widely reviewed as being superior to the iPhone, yet it failed. Miserably. Did you ever see an ad, or any piece of marketing or branding for it? I didn't.

            Lastly, to say, "brand loyalty has nothing to do with magic" is completely missing the point. Consumers ARE your product. Brand loyalty IS the magic.

  2. blackcoffee says:

    John,

    I read "Yahoo for that…" And had to give it a second read because I thought you meant Yahoo the search engine (or should I say BRAND?). I guess that says a lot right there!

    Thanks for sharing.

    Cheers,

    Mark Gallagher
    Brand Expressionist®

  3. @TomAsacker says:

    What if brands didn't exist? strikes me as a Zen koan, a philosophical thought experiment similar to, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

    The answer to both questions lies in an idea called interdependent origination. If there is no one around when a tree falls, then it makes no sound since sound is co-created by the vibration of the air made by the falling tree and a working ear and brain.

    The same is true with brands. Brands MUST exist so long as there are customers for them. Customer desire for a brand, for a differentiated offering, is what creates the brand. The only way ALL brands cease to exist is if ALL desire goes away. And, thankfully, I don't see that happening any time soon.

    • blackcoffee says:

      That's right, because if a brand is an experience, there would need to be someone on the other end to actually experience it. Otherwise, the experience couldn't happen.

      Funny, when we were writing this, we didn't think it was a trick question : )

      Cheers,
      Laura Savard
      Brand Expressionist®

  4. Joe says:

    Modern consumers demand choice. Brands provide it.

  5. Steve Jones says:

    With no branding, how would the sailors have known whether they wanted to be on board the Nina, Pinta, or Santa Maria? Each of those ships had a reputation in the minds of sailors and I'm sure there were preferences… that's the essence of branding.
    The concept of branding is hardly a new one. What is new is the endless choice available to consumers in every realm today.
    A world without branding is pretty empty.
    Want to go out to dinner? Go to "Restaurant".
    What do you drive? "Car".
    Branding has a curse, for sure. But I think the upside is far greater.

    • blackcoffee says:

      Steve,

      Agreed! Brands make up a large part of our vocabularies. They are how we make sense of our world. From products and services to people and places.

      Rock on!

      Mark Gallagher
      Brand Expressionist®

  6. Greg Hill says:

    Being in the web space I envision online chaos. The no brand concept creates a challenge for the user in finding an online provider, product, service etc. And worse, it makes finding a reputable one even more difficult. The security implications are significant.

    • blackcoffee says:

      Greg,

      Good point. You wouldn't be able to Google something. You wouldn't be able to say "try Amazon" nor "sell it on EBay." And the security issue gets into Visa, Master Card, Amex PayPal etc…

      I like your thinking. Thanks for sharing!

      Mark Gallagher
      Brand Expressionist®

  7. Ken Peters says:

    Humans require their complex world to be simplified and made more manageable. So, to a great extent, branding is a biological imperative. We couldn't function as a society without it. I don't believe it's possible to devolve to a state of existence without branding. Differentiation, and decision making based on that differentiation, will always exist, therefore branding is a fundamental necessity of life.

  8. Stephen Abbott says:

    Brands are simply memories. If brands were to cease to exist, we'd have no memory. For example, the reason you know you're looking at a tree is because you've been told everyone calls it a tree, and the tree continues to look like a tree. It's our shortcut to knowing and sharing ideas. "Brands" as we use them are simply a memory that is being managed and leveraged to someone's advantage; a shortcut to an idea.

    Brands aren't inherently good or bad. They simply exist as the anchor to the stories we believe about them.

    • blackcoffee says:

      Stephen,

      Agreed! Some of the most powerful brands such as Kleenex, Xerox, Google, FedEx, Rollerblade… have evolved past the shortcut to become the destination.

      Appreciate your time and thinking!

      Mark Gallagher
      Brand Expressionist®

    • @manchipp says:

      Brands are not born as memories. They become memories, but the begin as ways to create differentiation in competitive markets.

      • blackcoffee says:

        I fully agree that, first and foremost, branding is a business practice. It allows both businesses and consumers to identify and differentiate goods and services.

        Obviously, an experience must precede a memory. However, would you agree that consumers use brand signals, such as names, logos and trade dress, to navigate the marketplace? It’s not only how we identify and differentiate one company’s good and services from another, but as brands enter popular culture, they serve as communications devices:

        “I TiVoed the game”
        “Did you Google the restaurant”
        “I Rollerblade to work”
        “Xerox that document”
        “FedEx that package to Laura”

        I’m interested in hearing your thoughts.

        Mark Gallagher
        Brand Expressionist®

  9. Roger Dooley says:

    We could exist in a world without brands, but it would be a less appealing existence. At one fundamental level, we'd have no way of evaluating product quality or of finding products that had the specific characteristics we wanted. I assume this was the way things were for many products in the old Soviet Union days – generic labels, uncertain experience.

    The introduction of white-box generic products years ago and their quick failure shows the importance of brands to consumers. Even a cheap supermarket house brand is preferable to a product of uncertain heritage.

    • blackcoffee says:

      Roger,

      You bring up a very interesting point. If Brands are largely a byproduct of a capitalistic society, providing freedom of choice, then does the very presents of brands represent freedom?

      Cheers! Or should I say Na zdorovie!

      Mark Gallagher
      Brand Expressionist®

    • Brands were very much alive in the Soviet Union. Many times the town, factory and product all shared the same name. By deign.

      That town, that factory is where that product is made. The whole town works there. A sense of group pride and craftsmanship would create a reputation for the region.

      I believe ancient Japan was similar. This region is where the best swords are crafted. That street has 3 of the best. The third house is where you find the sharpest. The second house usually has the best prices. Etc.

      You can probably repeat this story back to prehistoric times.

      Brand as a way finding construct.

      Its in our DNA. We would walk in circles without the use of branding.

      • Roger Dooley says:

        That makes the point, @BrandBlueprint – we hunger for brands, or at least a way to distinguish between products where a quality difference might exist. I'm sure that the tiniest factory code could become as powerful as the Coke logo under those circumstances!

  10. oli says:

    At a basic level brands are just labels to which consumers and companies can attach meaning. An enduring and evolving understanding of the world we live in would be a lot more difficult and restricted without.

    I also agree with the other points above.

  11. Funny enough, there was a Polish ad campaign that addresses exactly this point. There was some legislation to restrict advertising and the Polish Ad Council released a campaign with an old picture with a store with empty shelves and a caption that read "No ads? We already know what that's like"

    I included it in a post a few years ago: http://www.digitaltonto.com/2010/the-future-of-th

    btw – You spelled "Na zdrovie" (to health) wrong… just sayin'

    - Greg

    • blackcoffee says:

      Greg,

      We see a world of difference between Ads and brands. However, your point is well taken!

      Also, thanks for the heads up on "Na zdrovie" (I'll fix that). Needless to say, I don't Speak Russian.

      Mark Gallagher
      Brand Expressionist®

  12. Well, in Russian it would be in Cyrillic:-) I was using a variant of the Polish, but you can use the phrase in pretty much any slavic language (good to know if you're ever in Prague).

    btw – I agree with you that ads are different than brands, but I think the point still stands. We don't have to imagine what the world would be like without brands, I've seen it and it wasn't pretty. It was actually kinda crappy.

    - Greg

    • blackcoffee says:

      Thanks Greg. We're on the same page here!

      Also, I like your "The Future of the Advertising Business Model" post.

      Mark Gallagher
      Brand Expressionist®

  13. @manchipp says:

    Brands only exist where there is competition.

    There is no branding at a farmers market (for example) — the tomatoes sit happily next to the asparagus — there's no brand names, no branded packages. Just fresh vegetables awaiting purchase.

    however, put a competitor in there, say ‘StawFarm™ Tomatoes, Fresher for longer’ — and suddenly we have branding issues… the own label Tomatoes are under threat by a more sophisticated marketing approach. Boom — a Brand is born.

    Brands do not exist naturally.
    They are created to compete.

    There's nothing inherently evil there.
    It's healthy to compete for the top slot and the top dollar.

    However there is of course temptation to get to the top through less than ethical means… and that's when a brands values begin to shine through…

    • blackcoffee says:

      Makes perfect sense. It's impossible to differentiate without competition or for consumers to have preference without choice.

      Thanks for sharing!

      Laura Savard
      Brand Expressionist®

    • Stephen Abbott says:

      Brands are not created to compete. They are managed to compete. We (society, humans) have established names for things so that we can talk about them with consistency. A tomato is branded simply by agreeing to call it a tomato. As I see it, that is the most basic branding principle in action; that and the shape, colour and context in seeing the tomato. The fact that a commercial enterprise isn't managing "tomato" doesn't change this phenomenon.

      You're correct in saying there is no commercial value advantage for a commodity, such as a tomato (or coal, milk, coffee, oil, water, …) until someone affects our perception.

      • @manchipp says:

        I'd suggest not.

        Tomato Soup is a NAME for a vegetable soup
        Heinz Tomato Soup is branded vegetable soup.

        A tomato is not a brand. It's a name.

        Different
        (picky — but true!)

        • Stephen Abbott says:

          I think we're debating semantics. A world without managed brands would be a world of commodities. Pretty simple (and dreadfully dull, IMO).

          So I agree with you that a tomato is just a name we've given to this particular fruit. Nobody is managing this (except for maybe a tomato authority group), so it's not a commercial brand. But it's not a banana, which is also a fruit. My original answer was a theoretical answer, but so was the original question.

          When people start to talk about removing brands—typically during discussions related to the evil of corporations—I often wonder when they'd stop removing the elements of distinction.

  14. Dave Bradley says:

    If brands did not exist, I'd waste a lot of time purchasing the things I need and want. Would I have to drill down through multiple products over and over again to get a great, merely satisfactory or terrible experience? Yes. Brand is reputation . A good brand is trust and there are definitely brands I trust. And there are definitely brands I don't trust (hello BOA). Without the knowledge and perception of what a brand promises and delivers, we'd be suck in an ever-changing maze.

    • blackcoffee says:

      It’s the signals that allow us to differentiate one brand from another that allow us to make sense of and navigate our world. Without them, it's a sea of sameness. Without brands, your playing Russian roulette every time you make a purchase.

      Thanks for sharing Dave : )

      Laura Savard
      Brand Expressionist®

    • blackcoffee says:

      So what you’re saying is, without the knowledge of, or preference for the “Dave Bradley Photography brand,” many buyers would be doomed to substandard photography.

      Cheers!

      Mark Gallagher
      Brand Expressionist®

  15. Jordan says:

    Brands aren't evil, some organizations are though.

    I think if we outlawed brands tomorrow, brands would still exist in the sense that people will relate unbranded products/ services with the manufacturers or service providers. Consider no name; originally the anti-brand, but people tried them, and now recognize no name as a legitimate brand.

    • blackcoffee says:

      “No Name” is a great example of an anti-brand brand. Its funny that, whether she likes it or not, Naomi Klein is also an anti-brand brand.

      Thanks for sharing!

      Laura Savard
      Brand Expressionist®

  16. Brands can't not exist. Everything and everyone is a brand. Brand is just a word for the "expectations" you have for a product, company or person's behavior. Branding is different. That is the expression of a brand, an action that represents its true beliefs, or a bullshit lie in hopes of creating the perception of a brand different from reality. Think BP Beyond Petroleum. That we can all live without.

  17. blackcoffee says:

    Simon, Edward and Stephen,

    Philosophical conversation always seem to get caught up in semantics and generalizations. So, I'll argue this (more semantics):

    While brand names obviously evolved from the generic naming structure that allowed us to identify and differentiate one "thing" from another, we (Blackcoffee) have always viewed a brand as being the antonym for a commodity (an undifferentiated good or service). Bananas and pineapples are commodities, Chiquita® and Dole® are brands.

    : )

    Laura Savard
    Brand Expressionist®

    • Stephen Abbott says:

      So if we remove the philosophical semantics, the answer is pretty easy. A world without brands would be a world without choices. Every tomato, banana or asparagus would be equal, and the natural pressure for commerce would be price; there would be no other reason to choose otherwise. (The issues facing marketing boards, such as the dairy industry, are a good example.)

  18. Bill Green says:

    I’d agree with @edwardboches. They’re not going anywhere.

    That said, to answer the hypothetical you posed, any brand apocalypse might likely start with an experience apocalypse first, which you're seeing now actually in how and where people use or discover brands.

    • blackcoffee says:

      Bill,

      I believe that a void in experience would be the same as an absence of brands. Then again we define a brand as an experience that lives at the intersection of promise and expectation.

      I agree that there is a shift in how consumers use brands. Advertising is dead. It’s not about how creative you can be in delivering your message, but how you deliver on consumer expectations that makes the difference.

      Cheers!

      Laura Savard
      Brand Expressionist®

  19. brandconsultantasia says:

    I have a nagging feeling at the back of my mind that we are actually witnessing the brand apocalypse now.

    I am beginning to experience brand fatigue with Apple, BMW, Mercedes, Twitter, Google, Youtube, Audi, Nike, Amazon, Standard Chartered Bank, Malaysian Airlines and most other brands that I interact with on a regular basis.

    Part of the fault lies at the feet of the brands themselves – Malaysian Airlines nickel and dimes me for RM50 (US$15) on a RM1,500 (US$500) ticket because I make an innocent mistake and doesn’t take into account the fact that my family and I have spent RM100,000 (US$32,000) with the airline in the first 6 months of this year.

    The airline then lies to me and says it can’t change the name on a ticket unless I pay RM50. Well, either you can change it or you can’t. When the airline makes a mistake and doesn’t send me an email with my ticket confirmation (which happened) and I raise the prospect of charging RM50 I’m met with a dumfounded silence.

    I’m experiencing brand fatigue (or perhaps brand apocalypse) with Apple because I now own 10 Apple products at home, another 10 at the office and have influenced another 50 purchases plus I also have 2 Zepellins and other audio devices plus various periphery products that connect using 30 pin Dock Connector that has been used for a number of years.

    If Apple brings out a new phone with a new connector, it will probably be the end of my relationship with Apple.

    I’m experiencing brand fatigue with BMW because despite spending RM585,000 (US$190,000) with the company, when they took my six month old X1 and ran it over a central reservation, the dealer refused to give me a written explanation of the reason for the accident and the damage caused.

    But I’m really experiencing brand fatigue with BMW because I haven’t been invited to events I should have been invited to. I’m not upset because they didn’t invite me to the event but because it means they have branding issues that need to be addressed and despite that being what I do, I can’t get to see anyone!

    I could go on but I think you get the point.

    Of course losing my business may not be branding armagedon for Apple and others but if I am not alone, and I don’t think I am then maybe it will be…

    • blackcoffee says:

      Marcus,

      1) All Airlines are horrible. The question is to what degree?

      I’m a BMW fan and as I understand it their offerings, and apparently brand experience, are different from region to region. The X1 isn’t available in the US. Also, are car dealerships in Malaysia owned by the manufacturer or are they franchises like here in the US? This could account for the discrepancy in experience.

      3) Eventually, Apple, like all technology companies, will update their technology. So long as the update provides more value than what their taking away, consumers will accept it. My guess is that someone, if not Apple, will make an adapter. Personally, I’d like to see it all go wireless!

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and frustrations.

      Cheers!

      Mark Gallagher
      Brand Expressionist®

  20. The world in a post-brand apocalypse would require more descriptive communication.

    You would have to provide a more detailed description of the goods and services you need or desire in order to receive an item or result that aligns with your initial expectation.

    • blackcoffee says:

      Justin,

      Sure, but at a certain point that level of detail begins to form a brand. After all, we describe things in order to identify and differentiate them and isn’t that what branding is all about?

      Take USG's SHEETROCK® All-Purpose Joint Compound. In southern California, where many construction workers can't speak English, they refer to the product as "Superior Verde" or "Green Top." Here, the descriptor becomes the brand.

      Thanks for sharing!

      Mark Gallagher
      Brand Expressionist®

  21. @faris says:

    Ello. I've been to Cuba. they have no brands there really. no advertising. just govt stuff. less choice.

    anyhoo. as you point out, depends on what you mean by brand. here's a couple of things to consider.

    1, brands are socially constructed ideas:
    http://farisyakob.typepad.com/blog/2007/01/brands

    brands – whatever they are – are worth money. P&G paid 57bn for Gilette – mostly for the brand value. 'goodwill'

    cultural myths create case value.
    http://farisyakob.typepad.com/blog/2009/08/brands

    for companies:brands are behavioral templates. they tell you how to act as a company, because companies are not people.

    for people: heuristic devices to help us navigate this ridiculous set of choices we now face in hyper-capitalist culture.

    value for both.

    • blackcoffee says:

      Faris,

      I like your definition. Too many people overlook the duality of the relationship (company and consumer).

      Thanks for sharing!

      Laura Savard
      Brand Expressionist®

  22. Russ Meyer says:

    I think if brands ceased to exist suddenly, we would recreate them almost immediately in so far as I believe one of the primary roles of a brand is as a short-hand for decision making and a 'holder' for distinguishing one thing from another. One of the first known 'brand marks' is an olive oil bottle stopper from Mesopotamia. That tells me that the human need to distinguish one thing from another is absolutely necessary and a natural human behavior. We can't help it…and we won't operate long without recreating them

    • blackcoffee says:

      Russ,

      You make a good point. Brands are fundamental to people process information. Brands help us to make sense of our world. If nothing is seen to be different then everything is the same and therefor equal. However, we know that not to be true.

      Thanks for sharing.

      Mark Gallagher
      Brand Expressionist®

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