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Thinking on “Rethinking the Idea of the Brand”

Umair Haque, Director of the Havas Media Lab and author of The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business posted a video blog earlier today on Harvard Business Review titled “Rethinking the Idea of the Brand.”

In his post Haque cites Havas Media Lab research that indicates the “majority of people wouldn’t care if 80% of brands disappeared tomorrow.” I find that hard to believe. I don’t find it hard to believe that research would indicate it, i.e., that a majority of people would say it, but I have a hard time believing it’s actually true. For example, when we do deprivation activities with consumers (i.e., asking consumers to go without a given product or brand for a specified time) their emotional reactions to the void created are significant, even alarming. People may not say it, but they love brands, they buy brands and they would absolutely care if 80% of brands disappeared tomorrow. So I have a hard time with the premise that people are, as Haque states, “indifferent” to brands.

From this premise of indifference, Haque makes the case that brands need to move from “aspirational brands” to becoming “meaningful brands” – i.e., from ego-centric brands to allocentric brands; from brands that signal to the world something about me to brands that communicate a purpose that the company is trying to make a meaningful difference.

While I love the sentiment and the altruism of “meaningful brands,” I have trouble with the perspective … not because the idea isn’t meaningful, but because of the direction from which it comes.

Let me try to explain.

Aspirational brands, while flawed in many ways (e.g., creating an aspiration that may not be the best choice for consumers…think junk food), have been extremely successful. In many cases they owe their success to building their brands from the perspective of the consumer – think “Just Do It”, “I’m loving it” or “Open Happiness” – where the focus is more about the consumer than it is the company. The consumer (admittedly or not) defines him or herself with the brand and in the process, the brand is defined by the consumer e.g., I drink Starbucks; this says something to the world about me; and hence Starbucks is defined by that something said.

In this way the consumer has become the owner of the brand. While there are pros and cons to this sense of brand ownership, there is tremendous value in the connection between company and consumer as a result of the consumer’s ownership. E.g., this is my brand of coffee, my brand of cell phone, my brand of mac and cheese, etc. It is this connection and ownership that gives a brand its strength and drives loyalty to it. See the endowment effect.

In Haque’s argument of “meaningful brands” the focus is on what the company is doing – that a meaningful brand is 1. “not doing harm” and 2. has a “tangible positive impact on people’s outcomes.” While neither of these points are invalid, they just seem to be a kind of chest pounding by a company to make its brand meaningful. While it may be in Haque’s terms “allocentric” it also seems rather “company-centric.” I feel like consumers have heard this before, distrust it and kinda tune it out.

Instead, I’d argue that brands will increasingly derive their meaningfulness from how consumers experience, interact with and own the brands they choose to bring into their lives in whatever ways they do. The challenge for marketers will be less about defining their brands in allocentric terms and more about building their brands with consumers on consumers’ terms.

I welcome your thoughts.

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