Brands today are much more than a single feature, benefit, or promise. The permeable lines between brand and consumer, media and advertising have extended the concept of brand to all facets of life. This wasn’t always the case. So how did we get here, and what does it mean for your business?
We live in what industry analysts call the third age of branding, when brand success is built not by suits in boardrooms but out in the world, by consumers and brand interactions. These days, branding starts in the mind of your prospect. It took a while to get here, and the changes are far from over.
First Age: Brand as Object
In the beginning, there weren’t brands. There were companies and there were products. A “brand,” for what it was worth, was simply the product itself. Purchasing decisions in this era were made on objective information—price, product features, and personal preferences.
Second Age: Brand as Identity
As consumerism evolved and market started expanding with greater and greater product varieties, companies needed to find ways to differentiate. It was no longer enough to say you offered the best product on the market when there were dozens of alternatives available.
What made your product different? Why should a consumer buy yours? This was the era of the sponsorship, the endorsement, and the mascot. Brands looked to project a unique identity for consumers to identify with and aspire towards.
Third Age: Brand as Idea
And so, products became more than products. They became promises of things larger than the product—beauty, strength, wealth, happiness. This product wouldn’t just solve a practical need; it would improve your life in meaningful (and hyperbolic) ways.
But this bubble of hyperbole popped. Consumers grew wise to the excess of these promises, and began to distrust grandiose advertising messages. And so, companies adapted again.
The third age of branding was marked by the removal of barriers, making consumers a part of the branding process. Gone are the days when a prominent billboard and a prime time television spot were enough to win over the purchasing public.
Fourth Age: Brand as Relationship
Brands today need to meet the consumer on their level. Native advertising is a recent example of these tactics, wherein brands publish content reflecting the tone and format of a host publication that aligns with their target audience. The success of native advertising is always dependent on transparency and authenticity.
Nowhere is that better illustrated than in consumer response to native ads. An in-depth study by Contently in 2014 revealed that 52% of consumers do not trust sponsored content and 48% say they have felt deceived by content they later realized was brand sponsored.
Brands in the fourth age are breaking down. They are characterized not by single elements like logos, taglines, or packaging—but by ongoing and omnipresent brand experiences.
A brand is no longer something that can be neatly buttoned up in a mission statement or website. A brand is the experience an individual has at every touch point, and the opinions they form based on those experiences.
Brands are built in every interaction between company and consumer, interactions that play out in public—on social media, in product reviews—and in private, through product usage and customer service experiences. The Apple concept store, for example, enables consumers to see, touch, and listen to Apple comprehensively, engaging the consumers’ senses to affect perception, judgment, and behavior.
A brand is not what it says it is, but what a consumer decides it is. Once upon a time, Coca Cola could tell us that their drink is a “delightful, palatable, and healthful beverage” that “relieves mental and physical exhaustion” and consumers would have to buy a coke for themselves to find out otherwise.
Today, the infinite well of product reviews available to consumers makes it almost impossible for brands to convince consumers to take their word for anything at all. Customers don’t buy ‘what’ brands do, they buy ‘why’ they do it.
So what’s to be done?
It’s time that brands step back, consolidate, and reconnect with the core values and differentiators that make them unique. It’s time to present a more authentic and transparent image —and not the false authenticity that only pretends to be transparent.
In the fourth age of branding, the brands that thrive won’t be the ones that spread the loudest and most pervasive message, but the ones that truly deliver. They’ll be reduced from a larger-than-life entity down to the products at the core, quality products that deliver real value to consumers.
Brands will stop selling lifestyles and empty promises and refocus on selling the products themselves. Hyperboles will be replaced with concrete brand promises.
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Editor’s note: this post was originally published in August 2016 and has been updated with fresh content.