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Devolution of a brand

The origins of the word brand go way back a long way to a time when we used to brand our property. Cattle ranchers would burn a mark into the upper thigh of the animal as a unique identifier ensuring the property was marked as his and not confused with the cattle of another rancher, the competition, if you will. The meaning of the word brand then started to evolve to encapsulate not just livestock but other goods to help distinguish one product or brand from another. An early example of this is Coca Cola. In the late 1880s when Coca Cola was first produced there were a lot of companies that sold sugary syrup to make sugary sodas from. But how do you make sure customers know it’s your sugary syrup and not the competitions, well, you give it a name or a unique symbol.

The story however, does not finish there. Over time the term brand continued to evolve and the core attributes, the unique identifier, started taking on more of persona until finally the marketing folks of the 1960s started giving brands real personality, allowing consumers to build emotional connections to those brands. David Ogilvy called this “the intangible sum of a products attributes”. Marketers started molding consumers perceptions around a product depending on what they wanted the product to stand for and in turn what they wanted a consumer to feel. With some brands it started going so far that consumers gave those products endearing or funny nicknames, this of course, only happens once a product has become part of the fabric of that consumers product eco system and lifestyle. Beemer in the UK, for example, is the name for BMW or Merc is short for Mercedes. Though it is not always the case that brands get positive or cool nicknames. It can, of course, backfire and sticking with the automotive industry, Fiat encountered this issue when in the late 1970s and early 1980s it became known as “Fix it again, Tony” (FIAT) in the United States, reinforcing the consumers belief that Fiat made unreliable cars. Upon reentering the US market in 2009 Fiat might have hoped that this nickname would have passed but unfortunately for them it had not. 27 years after the first round the automotive press could not help themselves but to greet the reintroduction of the car brand with headlines of: welcome back “fix it again, Tony”

Why is this important, well, inanimate objects have over time become greater parts of our lives and as they have become infused with emotional attributes, through clever tinkering of the admen or otherwise, they have taken centerstage as a way for us to show off our personalities, our status or are even used to represent our very identity. The fact that we let brands and their products take such important personas in our lives is astonishing and says a lot about our need to be accepted, respected or even adored by our peers and society at large. The rise of social media and our relationship with social media speaks to this as well.

With brands taking such an important position in our lives, it is a shame then that in our profession we are starting to water down the representation of brands through an over-reliance on data driven marketing. The days of great ideas and inspiring, sometimes over-the-top articulations of a brand seems to be all but over as the industry pursue a vanilla type approach where everything just becomes data driven bland noise, a nuisance that applies to a few more consumers as supposed to an inspiration that applies to less but more passionate devotees. Paradoxically we are in danger of moving backwards from the heyday of emotion fuelled, awe inspiring brands as personalities to indistinguishable monikers being branded on someone’s behind with a hot metal rod.