This article examines the way that brands have evolved from well constructed and manicured facades to fluid and independent values spaces, what I call ambient brands, where consumers gather to transact. It addresses the demise of traditional branding and the opportunity that new branding represents in driving transformational change towards sustainability and socially responsible business practices.
Branding has been in rapidly evolving state for the last few years. For a long time, since the emergence of consumerism in the 1950’s, branding was an exercise in fantasy and fiction for the purpose of creating the greatest possible product appeal. Several iterations of change have occurred since the advent of the Internet and the emergence of a savvy, super informed and newly conscientious consumer.
The fantasy factor was first to fall prey to technology in the mid 90’s. Google came along in September of 1998 and search engines and the persistent enquiries of the newly tooled consumer forced corporations to be, at least, wary of making untrue claims. To be fair, it wasn’t so much that marketers were innately dishonest but more a case of consumers not asking a lot of questions. That changed as technology fed growing consumer awareness and then this awareness pushed the use of technology in checking up on corporate behavior. This interdependent cycle of information and awareness caused the huge explosion in the debate about corporate responsibility and drove a rapid innovation in technologies that map and measure impact and create transparency and accountability around consumption. Consumers quickly got accustomed to asking questions and getting answers and their interest in and response to brands went beyond product and into process. The brand narrative changed to incorporate powerful new themes including sustainability, environmentalism, free trade and so on but corporations were still able to manage, to a large extent, the way in which they represented themselves relative to these themes.
What happened next happened incredibly quickly and put a decisive end to traditional corporate brand management and the very notion of the brand itself. Social networking and viral media eclipsed the corporation’s ability to fully own and represent their identities and brands moved out of the corporate and into the consumer realm. Tools like Wikipedia skipped nimbly past ads and PR and modified the search return definitions of companies and products to what customers, and not corporations, were saying about them. People used peer reviews, blogs and amalgamated shopping sites like Amazon to get around even the most honest brand promises. Quality, design and emerging consumer values rose to replace traditional name-brand equity and status symbolism (flash) as evidenced nationwide by trendy hipsters lining up to trade in BMW’s for a Prius. An “economy” car and a famously ugly one at that.
Viral social media marketing was like “word of mouth” on steroids and opened up opportunities for gutsy start-ups like Tom’s Shoes and Ethos Water, allowing them to succeed with big ideas, a social conscience and virtually no paid advertizing whatsoever. People purchasing those products were not just picking up another pair of shoes, as it were. They were buying into an idea and a set of values. The idea was social responsibility and conscientious consumption and that ultimately became a brand in itself. This was pretty revolutionary. A fluid and contextual brand not associated with any one company and with a huge community of loyal consumers and a strict code of entry. Now, instead of companies creating brands and hanging them up like so much window dressing, they had to apply for membership of newly independent, consumer defined brands with names like Green, Fair Trade and Organic. They did this by aligning themselves, or pretending to, with the values that those brands represent.