Once upon a time, a brand was an identity. Product brands could focus on one promise—and work solely to deliver on it.
Coca Cola, Ford, McDonald’s—these brands set themselves apart by focusing their messaging and efforts on providing a singular, consistent product quality that EVERY consumer could expect.
Today, brands like Amazon, Google and Apple aren’t product identities—they’re experiences. These brands encompass such a wide range of consumer engagements, pinning down a singular quality that’s relevant for everyone is not so cut and dried.
After all, how you use Amazon is likely very different from the way other consumers do. And as a result, your experience with the brand is altogether your own.
As data continues to drive technology platforms to even greater personalization, brands must learn to adapt. No longer can companies promise first and deliver second.
Today, the relationship consumers have with your brand—whether through relevant content, product use, social engagement or any variety of user experiences—will largely start with the consumers themselves. Brands will have to meet those consumers where their interests lie, and allow them to dictate how interactions progress.
This brave new world presents many challenges—and even more opportunities. To understand how to capitalize on them, it’s instructive to know how we got to this point and where branding will go from here. A good place to start is by revisiting the four ages of branding.
1. The Age of Products
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.
2. The Age of Identity
As consumerism evolved and markets 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.
3. The Age of Value
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.
4. The Age of Relationships
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. But with recent scandals involving “fake news,” Facebook data breaches and the like, the success of native advertising will always be dependent on transparency and authenticity.
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.
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. Brands will stop selling lifestyles and empty promises and refocus on selling the products themselves. 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.
Prepare your brand for the future.
Avoid the pitfalls of the past and get started today with our Brand Voice Worksheet.
Editor’s note: this post was originally published in August 2016 and has been updated with fresh content.