Digital & Social Media

Darwinian Branding: Survival of the Fittest Gets a Reboot


By David Wickenden

In a much-discussed article earlier this year in The New Yorker, business writer James Surowiecki argued that brands are losing their influence. Because the Internet has given consumers unlimited access to information and empowered them to act, he said, the ability of brands to drive customer behavior has been undermined. Brands have become “fragile.” Their economic value is declining. Information overload is “largely a myth,” and customer loyalty is “pretty much a thing of the past.”

Surowiecki’s argument is based on the new book Absolute Value by Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen, whose premise is that brands historically were a response to information-poor environments. Today’s information-rich environments enable customers to behave more rationally, making brands obsolete.

Surowiecki’s “Twilight of the Brands” drew a predictably pugnacious response from marketing mavens but a curious silence from the corporate communications community. That shouldn’t have been the case. Critiques covered flaws in Surowiecki’s case but missed their significance. Brands may not be declining, but they are unquestionably evolving, and in that evolution lies the future of the profession.

Push-back focused on three conventional definitions of brand value:

  • Shortcuts to Choice:  The issue isn’t information overload but overabundance of choice and products and lack of time. Search for any product you like and the choices are quickly overwhelming. User reviews are a mixed bag that requires time to sort through and filter out. With too little time and too much choice, brands provide shortcuts for trusted information on factors like quality, innovation, reliability, consistency and stature. Brands are curators, simplifying and quickening our path through the forest of options. For that reason, brands today are becoming more valuable, not less.
  • Emotional Benefits:  A brand is more than a logo or advertising and provides more than simply objective, functional benefits. Human beings respond not only rationally but emotionally, and are more than just units of consumption. A brand provides emotional and self-expressive benefits and relationship ties driven by purpose and shared values. Much of brand equity is based on these considerations. A brand is a promise, an experience and a symbol as much as it is a means of selection.
  • Brand Equity:  Negative facts about brands are more visible today and travel faster and more widely across social media, but that doesn’t equate to fragility. “Brand storms” rise and pass more quickly and have less lasting impact than rumors that emerge over a longer period of time. Well-established, authentic brands have equity that provides a buffer against negative news and sentiment. Accelerated dispersion of information rewards brands that deserve it, helping to create equity faster, while punishing those that are undeserving.

Here we start to get to the real issue. Brand storms underscore the fact that customer perceptions are shaped by what other people say about the brand as much as they are by the company itself. That’s the distinction between reputation management and brand management. Marketers use the term “brand equity” as a synonym for “reputation,” but reputation management is different than brand management as conventionally understood.

In fact, branding is becoming dialogue-based and relationship-driven as it adapts to the uncontrolled information environments unleashed by the Internet. As it does, it’s intersecting with corporate communications whose strong suit has always been reputation management. Yet, mashing the functions together to create a single integrated department can create more problems than it solves if the functions and skill sets aren’t properly understood, and if integration isn’t treated as an undertaking in organizational innovation.

To survive in the information-rich era, brands must align promise with performance, which requires clarity of purpose, belief and values, and consistent execution across the enterprise. For that reason, communications is being pushed into the areas of corporate policy, culture and operations – and change management is becoming a job requirement for chief communications officers and chief marketing officers alike.

Alignment of words with actions is at the root of the notion of authentic brands. How you are is who you are; be as you wish to be seen. That’s the new Darwinism of brands. Survival of the fittest in the era of information ubiquity and hyperconnectivity means meeting a higher order of expectation around corporate and brand performance.

The evolution of markets is stripping the veil off fake brands while empowering those that are genuine, and rewarding companies that create economic value in ways that are consistent with the interests of customers, employees and society at large. As branding doyen Don Peppers put it, commenting on the Surowiecki article, “It’s not ‘Twilight of the Brands’ time. It’s the ‘Dawn of Authenticity’ time.”

Sounds good. Hard to do. Who’s the steward of authenticity? What does authenticity mean to both the union chief and the CFO? New research and management tools like FleishmanHillard’s Authenticity Gap study can help. Even so, at the end of the day, aligning multi-stakeholder interests to create shared economic value grounded in authenticity is tough, grinding work. Nothing less will fully meet the needs of business and society in the future.