As advertising loses its impact, brands are looking for new ways to win people over. The latest effort has been to publish stories that look and feel journalistic. The key strategy being to hide the commercial imperative, and even the brand altogether, so that readers think they’re consuming a familiar newspaper or magazine.
This isn’t a long game. Hiding your true colours is never wise, and it’s also misleading to use a totally different set of qualities – good stories – to sell a product that has nothing to do with these qualities. Hiring a top filmmaker won’t improve the quality of your energy drink. Branded content complicates an already complex world driven by hidden agendas. And what about the stories no one wants to hear, stories incapable of selling something? People are more likely to follow a delirious brand instead of connecting with real people and real-world problems.
Instead of hide, what businesses should do is debrand. Put the product first, not the brand. Strip away all sense of backstory, and improve a product’s intrinsic qualities. Become a producer of shoes again, not of surrogate spiritualities and imaginary worlds. Focus communication on the quality and origin of both the materials and labour involved. Offer space for distrusting consumers to breathe.
The debranded future
In our debranded future, prices will reflect real value, not the conceptual value that branding magically bestows. The focus will shift from branded products to branded places: stores and their owners who select and sell products they like – the real Uncle Bens and Aunt Jemimas. These places will eschew packaging and advertising and go back to traditional shopkeepers acting as advocates for their products. Instead of brands, real people and real voices will be the interface between products and consumers, who will buy less throwaway clones and spend more on a few quality essentials.
This is in line with today’s networked society. Traditionally, branding is based on what differentiates a company from competitors. But in the internet age, consumers are increasingly comfortable with everything being interconnected. What distinguishes brands will become less important than what brings things and people together.
The only way we can be truly subversive today, and trigger changes, is to buy less stuff. Innovative brands will stimulate and anticipate this new attitude by re-evaluating what’s in front of them. We don’t need more branding. We need fewer, better-quality products.