Does a brand have a normal life cycle? In other words, is there a beginning, a middle and an end? The answer is not in black and white and certainly not clear cut in any way. In order to discuss brand relevancy and the fall of iconic brands we need to delve into the formation of brands, the relationships that brands have forged with customers and what the current climate of technology has done to change our behaviour as customers and with that, our relationships with brands.
Just over a hundred years ago, before the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the world of consumerism was small and essentially one-on-one. You knew the builder who constructed your house, the farmer from whom you got your milk and the seamstress who made your clothing. You knew these people and you had a personal relationship with them. The Industrial Revolution was the game changer and the start of what would eventually make our world a lot smaller. An extract from the book The Rise and Fall of American Growth provides good insight into the way things changed:
“As America became more urban and as real incomes rose, the share of food and clothing produced at home declined sharply. New types of processed food were invented … Many American men had their first experience of canned food as Union soldiers during the Civil War.”
Canned food provides an ideal example of brand formation. The consumer for the first time in human history had no connection with the producer. Canned food was sourced from various suppliers and then batched together, creating major product inconsistencies. News outlets of the day were quick to point out the pitfalls of buying canned goods. Harpers Weekly in 1869 wrote that “The city people are in constant danger of buying unwholesome [canned meat]; the dealers are unscrupulous, and the public uneducated.” The William Underwood Company, known for making a meat spread called Deviled Ham decided to remedy the situation by creating a logo that everyone would recognise – a flaming red devil logo – and with it a tagline that read: Branded with the devil, but fit for the gods.
The logo helped to create the face-to-face familiarity that commerce had up to that point provided. It gave customers something to associate with the product. If the consumer saw the logo, he or she immediately knew that a certain type of product would be ascertained and that it would be made according to a set of standards. This gave the consumer something not acquired before – consistency. It also meant that the customer knew what to expect and that’s really what a brand does – it gives you something that you expect.
Along Came the Internet
We don’t need to bang on about the fact that the internet was and continues to be a game changer and mainly due to the feedback systems it provides. In the past for instance, if a family went on a vacation to the east, they’d eat at FKC or McDonald’s, and quite simply because of brand familiarity. Now thanks to online sites and reviews, travellers can see what restaurants are available with more exotic offerings and see what previous customers have had to say. In the same breath an online player might elect to visit a casino review site before finally settling with one online casino and even then, loyalty is not guaranteed.
In the past people might have been reluctant about ordering a product online but once again thanks to prior reviews, can now gain peace of mind and make an informed decision. The internet has provided ways for more competition to advertise their products and to sell these products directly. Consumer staples have been hit quite hard too. Do you care if your friend or colleague uses Skip or All-Purpose washing powder? Identity brands on the other hand are still holding on to their commanding power. If you own a Porsche, or an Apple product or you wear Levi jeans, you’re trying to send a certain message.
Brand Loyalty Killers
Brand loyalty has declined and for a number of reasons. The old guard’s standing by something being tried and true has started to fade away. Sticking with tradition is now being seen as being inflexible and not exploring alternatives. Across the span of the last three generations trends in politics, religion and marriage have also changed and things like mutual trust have disappeared thanks to the faster rate at which news travels. The big corporations that for the longest time held our trust have had that trust eroded thanks to often being exposed for the greedy uncaring lot they are. CEO’s with ridiculous salaries, layoffs and external outsourcing polices have all come to the public’s attention a lot quicker, thus fostering a climate of distrust and more trust in smaller upstarts. In no particular order, here are the trend changers and in the same breath, brand killers:
- Work: Back in the day employees retired with gold watches and retirement parties but as retrenchments increased, both parties realised that the relationship was more about practicality and not sentimentality. Today’s millennials are unlikely to work for one company for many years. Throw in the fact that more people are self-employed and that there’s a continued push for A.I. and a robot labour force, loyalty has become a concept less maintained.
- Religion: Nowadays spiritual beliefs are more fluid and less dogmatic. Stats show that 23% of Americans say they are agnostic or atheist while one third of millennials agree. The lack or the less emphasis on one central place of worship has weighed into the way people see or associate with the concept of loyalty.
- Romance: The old Disney fairy tale of happily ever after has been exposed. Stats indicate that over 50% of millennials were raised by divorced parents while just over 40% were raised by parents who never got married. Factor into this the way dating has changed through apps like Tinder and it becomes even more apparent, the extent to which the old ways have changed to further erode the concept of loyalty.
- Corporations: Scandals in politics and business is nothing new but thanks to the availability of 24 hour news outlets and the speed with which news is delivered, people are more clued up with millennials in particular having a distrust of authoritative institutions – 82% for the government, 88% for the press and 86% for corporations. The belief is quite clear – big is bad. This is why long-standing institutions have fallen into disrepute against innovators and upstarts.
- Thought: The way we think and process things has changed and we have technology to blame. The idea of sticking with what we know is being done away with as information has become more freely available. It’s caused the online behaviour to be replicated offline where things actually happen at a much slower rate.
The game has changed. Distrust has led to a different way in which consumers view brands. Even established ones like Nike with their world dominance don’t hold the same status they once did. The shoe wearing public has more options. Nike in turn has combatted the issue by sticking to its arm-and-a-leg approach to pricing, a strategy it believes will keep them in the upper echelons of the sneaker-loving public. By the looks of things the days of brand loyalty have been eroded by the exact thing that helped the industry itself flourish – technology. Technology’s constant climb and it’s incredible speed in the last few years has seen it change the way we as people view brands and it’s changed the way we think and behave, whether it’s something we’d like to admit or not.