Branding is Dead: Guest Post

Last Updated Apr 24, 2010 6:57 AM EDT

Yesterday I got an email agreeing with my views on brand marketing. The author of that email, Mitch Ahiers, also enclosed an article that he wrote for a marketing newsletter a few years ago. The subject matter is pertinent, so I'm posting the entire article verbatim. Here it is:
I've been telling everyone for years that I'm the most handsome man on the planet, but People magazine hasn't exactly put me on their Top 25 list. Despite my best efforts, my handsome brand seems to be considerably behind Johnny Depp's. And while I have accepted that no matter how much I brand myself it won't make a difference in how I am perceived, many marketers have not come to this same conclusion. The reality is that as marketers we don't have as much influence over building brands as we'd like to think.

Here's the problem. Branding initiatives are too often based on one-way communication. This contradicts sound communication theory. Communication does not occur when the sender delivers a message. It occurs when the receiver accepts the information. In the 80's Sears was losing business and launched its "Softer side of Sears" campaign. On paper this looked great, however, the campaign failed to deliver. The problem was that when a customer approached a store they still parked in front of the muffler shop and had to walk by the lawnmowers to get to the "Softer side of Sears." Meanwhile, Intel is known the world over as the leading chip manufacturer. That's because Intel understands how to communicate their brand. Most people are surprised to hear they did not launch their Intel Inside campaign until they had over 85% market share. Instead of declaring themselves the market leader, Intel actually went out and became the market leader. Their brand statements now ring true because they've done the heavy lifting. All too often marketers don't have the necessary control or don't do the work required to back up their brand message, and the resulting confusion eviscerates the very brands they're trying to promote.

Brand marketing is also less relevant now. Historically, branding helped differentiate among products. Today, the market is more heterogeneous, and consumers have much more information to help them make buying decisions. Consequently, branding campaigns have little influence on educated consumers. Besides, most of us have become numb to the effects of branding. Every day we're exposed to over twelve hundred brand messages, and this constant parade of claims and promises has made us cynical and difficult to inspire. These messages are merely part of the background noise. In order to survive, most companies will need to find a new way to reach customers.

Probably the most damning aspect of brand marketing is not its waning relevance, nor its misguided communications model. Rather it's that marketers cannot demonstrate a return on investment, and executives responsible for profits are starting to figure this out. They no longer accept "impressions," "brand awareness" or "brand equity" as measures of success. These fuzzy indicators do not translate into sales and are essentially useless as decision-making tools. More importantly, executives understand that without any real form of measurement there is no accountability, and marketing programs with no accountability have no credibility.

This is not to say marketers are expendable. It just means our programs should not be built around branding. I do believe in the power of a strong brand. A strong brand can win customers and increase profits. I just don't believe branding is a reasonable objective for marketing. Instead, marketing programs should focus on demonstrating customer value.

Not buying it? Consider They became a household name on the strength of bold branding. However, is no longer with us, largely because they did not provide any real value to their customers. Who really wants to buy dog food over the Internet? Successful marketing needs more than creative punch. In order to survive and remain profitable companies must demonstrate customer value.

Companies with strong brands do not try to shape how their customers should feel about them. Rather, they listen to their customers and focus on delivering value. Strong brands are the byproduct of this effort, because-and this is something we all need to face up to-customers define brands. Our role as marketers is to get to know our customers and effectively demonstrate the value of our offerings. Only then can we actually contribute to the strength of the brand.

There's a reason customer value is a measurable statistic and brand valuations aren't. Customer value is real. It's tangible, and that's why executives are beginning to see it as a solid justification for marketing programs. It's time to face reality in the marketing department. Branding as we know it is dead. Long live the brand!

BIO: Mitchel is the Director of Communications for Infineon Technologies, a global manufacturer of semiconductors, where he leads the company's demand generation and marketing campaigns in North America. He has been involved with strategic marketing and sales for over 15 years throughout the Silicon Valley. Mitchel received his BS in Marketing from Santa Clara University.
READERS: What do you think?