Cheryl Metzger / August 4, 2016

Brands are dead. Long live brands!

OK, I know what you’re thinking: Brands aren’t dead. “Much of my paycheck,” you may be thinking, “is dedicated to ensuring [fill in the blank] brand is ‘top of mind,’ capturing the fickle ‘awareness’ of customers, and ‘driving .1% engagement on social.’" 

Hear me out. I don't quite mean that brands are dead. What I do mean is that the old notion of brands is dead. The term “brand”—much like “content,” “digital,” and “experience”—is slippery and evasive. It can mean everything and, thereby, it can mean nothing.

The traditional view of brands

The traditionalist’s view is that brands are a mental shortcut. Brand strategists talk of “mental availability” and “salience”—fancier terms for saying “association.” Do people associate the name of your company, or your particular product, with their need when they’re in a moment to buy? If you’ve peppered them with enough advertising, the logic goes, they’ve created a mental association between your brand and their need and can shortcut the decision-making process (i.e., thinking) when they’re ready to buy.

This is a useful, efficient, human process. From prehistoric symbols to Gestalt psychology, from mnemonics to semiotics, humans have been creating, and studying, these mental tricks of the trade that reduce energy spent on processing information and making decisions. So brands as symbols, as quick associations that alleviate small decisions, are still useful mechanisms.

Feel better? What I really mean by “brands are dead” is that this notion, this useful role that brands play, is harder to achieve and means less to people emotionally than brand managers would like to believe. In the past, when a brand represented a single company that focused on a single product line, brand associations were clear and easy to establish. But there is a key disruption that requires we rethink how we define brands. And that is the effect of convergence.

But there is a key disruption that requires we rethink how we define brands: the effect of convergence.

Brand, disrupted

Convergence can refer to many things—the laddering up of smaller businesses into ever-larger holding companies, the convergence of different functions in a single technological device, or the integration of multiple touchpoints into a seamless customer experience. The effect is that perception of the brand becomes more and more dependent on the unique decisions of the end user. 

Brand strategist Rod Parkes explains in further detail

“When a single gadget in our pocket combines the functions of a telephone, a camera, a media player, and an Internet access point—not to mention a fashion accessory, and in less affluent markets, a status symbol—each consumer will view a brand such as iPhone differently depending on the particular needs it satisfies for them.”

Put another way, customers have more choices than ever before. The more they can customize how they use your product and how they interact with your business, the more these touchpoints matter to defining the brand.  

This is not to say, as many do, that customers now control your brand. Not quite. You still have a lot of control; in fact, even more control than before, if you expand the notion of brand beyond media and message. The new notion of brand—as I would define it—is to first consider the component building blocks of your business. These building blocks include your processes, the touchpoints through which customers interact with your business, your products, and how your values are tangibly demonstrated (not just stated). Businesses define the building blocks; customers assemble them. In a world of convergence, this intersection is where the brand truly exists.

Businesses define these building blocks; customers assemble them. In a world of convergence, this intersection is where the brand truly exists.

A living brand

When the building blocks of your business are easy to assemble, fit together seamlessly, and allow for a diverse array of preferences and experiences—you have a brand that is customer-centric. When those building blocks also bring to life the values of your business, you have a truly memorable brand. And because this new notion of brand exists through interactions between your business and your customers, you have a brand that is truly alive.

Cheryl Metzger is director of strategy for Wire Stone’s Chicago office, where she leads consulting in customer experience strategy, digital marketing, and communications design.