In business, as in life, at the end of the day your good name is all you've got. Reputations and brands can take a lifetime to build and only moments to mess up or destroy. The list of examples is too painful to recount--okay, hello United Airlines. I still believe in the value and efficacy of a good brand name, although my enthusiasm is waning. But then I'm an old guy and a pretty traditional buyer. And yet, even I have changed some of my ways. I can remember only a few years ago when I would happily pay a ridiculous premium to buy Sony products (especially big screen TVs) and today Sony has to fight for space in most big box retailers.
Samsung seems to have just come along and killed Sony (while no one - including Sony-- was looking). And more to the point, South Korean companies, including LG, have displaced formerly go-to Japanese brands such as Panasonic and Toshiba. The Japanese, of course, turned American consumer electronics giants such as RCA, Westinghouse and Zenith Electronics into brand ghosts.
I'm sure there's a lesson or two in that pitiful pile (all the ponies are long gone), but for me, the sad Sony saga is at best a simple and instructive footnote in the changed ways in which we need to think about the value and impact of strong brands. If you take your customers for granted or believe that you own them for life, they won't be your customers for long. Nothing is the future forever.
I wrote about this issue a while ago (See Does Your Brand Matter? ) and said then that a strong brand can be a form of shorthand to help cut through the noise and the clutter for consumers who are clearly suffering from decision fatigue and definitely looking for a helping hand as they select from among so many available options. But investing more deeply in pure brand-building today works only if your current and potential new customers willingly buy into your brand's promise(s) and believe that you can deliver the underlying value in the transaction. You can't push a rope or drive a customer to do much of anything these days-- the best you can hope for is to lead them gently and authentically toward the right decision. Brand used to be the last line of defense against an educated consumer and product parity in the marketplace. But it's no longer capable of getting the job done alone.
We're seeing that overall trust in brands is constantly diminishing. By now, it's just under 50% of all adult consumers who simply don't believe in the claims of traditional advertisers and, of course, millennials are even less credulous. Which means that everyone who's out there trying to sell something needs to look specifically at their company's offerings, the channels they're employing to reach their targets, and their own competitive circumstances in order to determine whether their ongoing and/or expanded brand investments will continue to provide meaningful protection and reasonable returns. I'm not too optimistic.
I still believe in the basic brand proposition. It's a little like having a powerful celebrity endorsement. You don't know how much it's worth (or how much it adds to your story) until you no longer have it. Sports and Hollywood stars age out, or someone else steals the spotlight away from your "heroes". Jordan will always be Jordan, but Curry and Kayne are the new, hot guys on the street and they're killin' it. No self-respecting kid today-- except for a few smart-ass sneakerheads--would willingly be caught in a pair of Jordan kicks. The trains keep movin' down the tracks and nothing stands still for more than a moment. What's red-hot today is ho-hum tomorrow. And your brand alone is not going to be enough to keep you in the game.
It's a lot like TV programming these days. For now, it's still laying those golden eggs, but the eggs are getting smaller and less attractive every quarter. In limited cases, the numbers and the eyeballs are still there, but in most instances, no one cares because they're old folks and coach potatoes-- not today's active and mobile consumers. The conversation is headed in the wrong direction and, for the networks, there's really no going back. CBS is for seniors and proud of it (or maybe settling for it). Fox is for fascists and perverts. NBC is like Nutella. Looks like chocolate - tastes like crap. And ABC is an also-ran that isn't even in the consideration set any longer. Whatever the names and brands of the traditional networks used to stand for, the jig is up for good. Today they stand for mediocrity, mendacity, money uber alles and the triumph of the lowest common denominator, which is a pyrrhic victory at best.
The die is cast. The next several generations of viewers have already made the switch to multi-modal digital media consumption and they're not coming back. And this is at a time in the revolution when the two most critical players (Facebook and Apple) are only belatedly awakening to the virtues of streamed media. Traditional TV is toast-- someone just needs to tell those guys to lie down and die.
Real value today isn't being attributed to brand assets to the same extent it previously had been -- now it's all about customers. Customer connections, customer engagement, customer retention and customer word of mouth (WOM). If you aren't getting better and faster at what you're doing, you won't be able to compete much longer in this "what have you done for me lately?" world of progressive and constantly increasing consumer expectations.
If you're not constantly raising the bar, you're on the way to going broke and your brand's not much of a barrier to the relentless onslaught of social media that has basically seized control of these crucial conversations. If you're not easier to do business with than the next guy, you'll be the last guy pretty soon.
It's not enough to say you don't suck or that you're no worse than the next guy. You need to be something special-- stand for things that matter and make a difference-- or you'll get lost in the shuffle. The best brands are a sacred promise, but just saying it doesn't make it so.