When The Doors released “Break on Through” in January 1967, JIm Morrison sang that “we chased our pleasures here, and dug our treasures there.” That message could be applied to brands as they came into prominence in the early 20th century. How you ask? Well, consider that America was largely an agrarian society and common standards for product manufacturing and consumer safety were spotty at best. Brands promised consistency and big came to mean safe. Brands took pleasure in battering the little guys and dug a lot of treasure out of consumers desire for security. Those days are over now. Retailers are hungry for new profit centers, establishing an increasing presence of store brands that have both the appearance and performance of national brands. The not-so-secret intention of many chains, especially in food categories, is to crowd out the big brands in favor of higher margins afforded by private-label products and niche specialty items that aren’t available everywhere. That philosophy is inexorably marching into other retail spaces as well. Any traditional response by established brands will be both wrong and damaging.
At that same time in the brands’ heyday, all the supposed brains necessary to elevate a brand to national prominence were housed in some big ad agency on either coast. If you doubt the hubris of the agency world of that time, check out a few episodes of Mad Men. That world is breaking apart now and what do the tradtional brains have to say? Again, in Morrison’s own words, they “tried to run and tried to hide.” It’s always easier to rail against new developments and opportunities than to embrace change. Instead of acknowledging the emergence of Daniel Pink’s free-agent nation, the arbiters of all things safe and proper at global agencies chose to label ‘the crowd’ as “DIY designers.” That was a huge mistake because as consumers came to own the brand and the influence of social media conferred credibilty on the real-time recommendations of our peers, many brands were locked out of the conversation. And their agencies simply scratched their heads and continued to collect retainer fees, promising that this wasn’t a trend but merely an anomaly. Wrong again.
The crowd is here to stay and its influence, like the genie, can’t be put back in the bottle. Is this crowd, to paraphrase Spiro Agnew, merely the “nattering nabobs of negativism” exercising undue influence over initiatives of The Gap, Tropicana, and other supposed violators of a democratic approach to design and branding? Or are they, in Thomas Friedman’s words, the “great flatteners and levelers” who will have an increasing say in the upstream image before the product is ever on the shelves? I think it’s the latter. Why? Because the crowd is simply too big and too well-qualified, and the communication tools are getting more pervasive and seamless. The arbiters are us and we don’t hesitate to vote with our feet. If brands and entrenched agency insiders bet that this is transitory, they will be wrong. Again.
So what is a brand to do? Unfortunately the common response, and always the easiest as well, is to increase the volume, wattage, and tonnage. Traditional agency and media types will always recommend a higher spend when faced with new competition. That’s wrong too. Brands must now seek to engage and reinforce their relevance in consumers’ lives. Communications must be grounded with integrity and empathy rather than be riddled with bombastic claims and unrealistic social benefits. The default response can’t be an ever-changing new and improved package design, but should be rather a concentration on delivering real and desired benefits. Consumers are no longer at the end of the chain, and this fragmented society will no longer be lemmings. Pretending otherwise or wallowing in deep denial of permanent changes in consumer behavior will be wrong. Again. To reprise The Doors, it is time for brands to “break on through to the other side.” It is not only the right way, it is the only way.