Predictions that brands are useless constructs soon to be bypassed by algorithms relies on a narrow view of the role brands play and the multiple ways they are built. Shann Biglione, head of strategy at Publicis Media explains.
Few people would tell CMOs to their face that brands are a dying breed. Of course, this isn’t the kind of prediction Scott Galloway would shy away from. In his well-known interview with Mr Purpose and former P&G CMO Jim Stengel, he summarized very sternly his long-held prognosis for brands: we have entered the “post brand era” which, in Scott Galloway speech, is Latin for “your expertise is fucked.”
The crux of Galloway’s argument rests on three observations:
1. The brand era was built on a system that took “a mediocre product, amazing brand codes (elegance, masculinity) and used the incredibly efficient vehicle called broadcast to pound away those associations and cash in at 80 points margin.”
2. This “advertising-industrial” complex, and broadcast media in particular, is a frog going from boiling to roasting. The odds of survival for the channels needed to advertise brands are about as good as trying to avoid coronavirus in the White House.
3. Putting the final nail on the coffin, the introduction of “weapons of mass diligence” (Google search, Amazon reviews) is allowing consumers to bypass the brand and find the best version of what they’re looking for.
To paraphrase crudely, the “brand era” was sort of the age of shit rolled in glitter, thrown through the fans of broadcast media. As we look to the future, our AI overlords will be wiping the room clean with their fancy algorithms, making all the choices for us. Call me a nostalgic old fart, but hearing one of the most famous marketing and branding academics of our times profess this doomsday scenario depresses me. And as a fan of ‘The Big Dawg‘, it certainly gives me pause. Could it just be my salary depending on our disagreement? I’ll concede parts of the diagnosis are right, but I believe the prognosis is building on half-truths while ignoring important evidence. As it stands, I don’t think brands have completely lost their seat on the Iron Throne.
Shame! shame! shame!... On us?
First of all, I take serious issue with this underlying notion that brands are just a wrapper to make us eat shit at a premium. Sure, there have been plenty of bad products in the history of consumerism, but a brand is not, cannot and should not be a substitute for a good product. In essence, marketing is about optimizing a product and its presentation to a market. Terrible products rarely outperform, and there is no amount of branding that has ever let a brand sustain itself forever. Tide isn’t the giant it is because it doesn’t do a good job at washing laundry. People do not eat at McDonald’s because they hate the taste. This idea that branding is best used as some sort of turdy magic trick is insulting both to companies and consumers. It betrays some alpha confidence that our work was so Machiavellian that we were able to completely rid the world of its critical and commercial sense.
Of course, we play a role in how people choose what they buy, but this is more a dance of tango than a high school reunion macarena forced down our throats. If in doubt, just take a look at how bad big brands are being sacrificed on the altar of diligence: Tide: 4.8 stars on Amazon, L’Oreal Paris Revitalift: 4.5 stars, Dove Body Wash: 4.9 stars. Big brands are capable to thrive under the scrutiny of consumer reviews. In my experience, large consumer packaged goods corporations realize that their biggest brands even outpace the growth of smaller ones on those channels. Popular does not necessarily mean crap, simply that it meets a lot of people’s satisfaction standards. It’s Byron Sharp’s good old Double Jeopardy 2.0.
Broadcast winter may be coming, but…
It’s absolutely true that the cost-effective means of broadcast are taking a severe hit. This is why the P&Gs of this world have been briefing their partners on what a world without TV will look like for their brands. The business of pimping consumer attention has hardened, and to Galloway’s point, our grief makes us realize how good we’d had it for decades.
But let’s assume the ‘narrowcast‘ networks don’t allow us to reach consumers at scale (big ‘if‘). Even then, it’s worth remembering that advertising is a competitive edge, not an absolute necessity. It allows to be seen relatively more or less than the competition, and broadcast performs well at scaling that effect. But it’s not the only one. We’ve seen this in regulated markets where access to broadcast media was prohibited – eg smoking brands in many countries, movies in France, condoms in China. In none of those cases did we see the importance of brand reduce – quite the opposite. If really such channels were to disappear, it would even the playing field the same way regulation does. And yes, brands may revert to different tactics, but the strategic value of a strong brand will likely survive broadcast’s extinction.
For example, while we’ve supposedly entered this erosion of mass media, it’s been impressive to see P&G’s performance and their stock valuation doubling in the last two years. Or go to China, and watch a brand like Three Squirrels, who have been able to become one of the largest food brands in the country simply by repackaging wholesale nuts at a premium under a cute brand umbrella and some fun little bits of packaging. An explosive growth that all happened on – wait for it – e-commerce websites! The very tools that are supposedly reducing the value of brands. Betting on brands is still more Procter than it is gamble.
You know (close to) nothing, Jon Snow
Our industry has been putting a lot of faith in AI curating all our aspirations and purchases. But on the advertising front, despite all the hype surrounding it, the jury is still out on the performance driven, audience targeted system supposed to read our needs and intents. And if we agree with Galloway that advertising is a “tax on the poor and technology illiterate”, who’s most likely to suffer? The annoying performance “buy now!” ads and their cumbersome ad-tech? Or aspirational ones delivered with creative gusto and more likely to be passed on organically?
Then, when it comes to the moment of truth itself, it’s very hopeful that the ecosystem built on algorithms will satisfy the complexity and randomness of purchase behaviors across all categories. We’ve heard Scott recently imagining a future where AIs will purchase items for us before we even realize we need them. It is the MDMA take of the prediction he made a few years back that Alexa’s voice would bypass our shopping habits and kill brands. But so far, voice shopping is still not a thing, and certainly not killing brands.
Algorithms are undoubtedly changing the way we discover certain things – especially when we’re not too sure where to look. But we humans also like our habits and are known to do things against our self-interest all the time, even when presented with all the information. I personally grew up in a ‘humble‘ household, and I can guarantee you that buying unbranded options was more out of necessity than it was out of preference. Getting real Coke or Nutella was a treat, and Americans have just shown us that even in the middle of an economic crisis, they will seek and favor trusted brands.
So no, we’re not the rational econs simply looking for a better algorithm. We’re the kind of people who mostly use algorithms to help us choose between the Sony or the Samsung. We are fucked up egomaniacs for whom a brand remains a valuable heuristic, even when we think we’ve let our best judgement lead us down the path to purchase. And whether we’re proud of it or not, many brands will remain a tribal signal to boost our confidence we can belong, be loved, and yes, sometimes even get laid. Brands are resilient to reason for the same reason Scott’s cherished capitalism works so well: despite their imperfection, they are systems that build windmills on our deepest aspirations. These Darwinian beasts do not exist because they were imposed onto us, they exist because of us.
Yes, we will fly the plane a bit differently, and we will encounter turbulences along the way. But calling it a ‘post brand era‘ and prognosticating brands as soon-to-be useless constructs bypassed by algorithms relies on a narrow view of the role brands play and the multiple ways they are built. We do have big questions to ask. But we cannot succeed flying the plane (or even rebuilding it) if we go all Daenerys Targaryen on the laws of aerodynamics.
Shann Biglione is head of strategy, Publicis Media.