What is going to happen to brands and branding?
Is it all over? Does globalization mean that variety and individuality will be crushed out of existence by massive multinational corporations who will dominate world markets with their immense promotional power? Does it mean that, wherever we live, we will all end up buying and using versions of the same stuff?
Will everywhere in the world become increasingly similar, like airports today?
If, on the other hand, globalization is taking over and the world is becoming increasingly homogenous, how is it that nation, region and city branding have become so important?
Why is every place shouting so loudly that it is the most attractive spot in the world to invest in and to visit, and that the brands it produces are the world’s most desirable? If everything and everywhere is becoming increasingly similar, will there still be room for places that trade on being different? Or is something completely different happening?
Does the rise of digital technology mean that corporations will increasingly be on the defensive because customers will not only answer back but will ask a few questions and make a few demands on their own initiative? Does digital mean that everyone who feels like it will be able to make their own brand and market it – like self-publishing? And, if it does, where does that leave the multinational corporation?
What do we customers want anyway? Do we want it cheap? Do we want it authentic? Do we want it, whatever it is, to come from ‘somewhere’ – place branding again? Do we want it all at the same time? Or do we just keep changing our minds on alternate Thursdays?
What about sustainability, going green, global warming, the environment, and so on? How do they affect the way we think about the products and services we consume? And how do they influence the way we feel about the organizations that make and sell those products and services? Do we really believe that oil companies want to save the world? Is corporate social responsibility (CSR) as significant as everybody now says, or is it just a shibboleth or even a passing fad? And how can companies reconcile maximizing profitability with CSR?
Put another way, what is the corporation there for? To make profit and grow, or to help society, or both? And how can the corporation demonstrate that it cares – if it cares? And what if it operates through a multiplicity of brands? Does this mean that the corporation has to stand up and be counted; that it has to be seen to be the face behind all its brands? What about charities and NGOs? Are they going to become more professional and brand themselves?
Then there is the changing shape of world power; the relative decline of the West in the face of the growing political and economic power of emerging markets. Or do we mean already emerged markets? Will these countries start producing and promoting global brands based around their own cultural strengths and heritage? And, if they do, what will this mean for the traditional global dominance of brands based around Western cultural norms? Will they die, or will there just be more competition?
And then, assuming for the moment that brands don’t die and that there will always be plenty of them around, who’s going to build and sustain them? And what will happen to the brand consultancy business? Will it increasingly rely on metrics, quantification and ‘scientific’ research? What about flair and intuition in the creation and sustainability of brands? Will this disappear and be replaced by bland work created entirely out of ‘rigorous’ analysis? Put another way, will there be yet another face-off between rational and emotional; rigour and intuition; head and heart?
All these, and a few other issues, too, face the branding activity over the next few decades. I am writing about it all now, because I won’t be here to see it and listen to people telling me how wrong I was.
This extract is from Wally Olins ‘Brand New’ book, published by Thames & Hudson on the 7th of April 2014. Pre-order your copy here.