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From The CriticsThere's a line in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: "The meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside in the unseen, enveloping the tale which could only bring it out as a glow brings out a haze."
Brands are the same way: They draw their meaning more from their enveloping symbolism than from their "kernel," the actual product.
Long ago, of course, things were different. Commodities, the foundation of consumer culture, were only bulk goods. They sold themselves. Either you wanted a bag of cereal grain or you didn't. It was not until later that companies like Kellogg came along and called the cereal "Frosted Mini-Wheats" or some such name.
As soon as companies turned commodities into products, they started telling customers that one was better than another. Resources went into packaging and marketing. What became important was the "enveloping haze," not the "kernel." In the words of legendary branding guru Walter Landor: "Products are made in the factory but brands are made in the mind."
Today, there's little question that brands are the dominant commodities in our image-based culture. In fact, brands themselves are now a "brand," the hottest thing in business and marketing strategy.
The general consensus is that the leading "brand" in the branding field is David Aaker, professor emeritus of marketing at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business. Since the early 1990s, Aaker has been telling the brand story to American businesses. In Managing Brand Equity, published in 1991, he argued that brands have an intrinsic value, or equity, relative to a corporation's overall assets. Aaker expanded on this theory in 1995 with Building Strong Brands, one of the most important marketing books of the 1990s. He discussed how we can measure brand equity and analyzed how multiple brands work together to form a synergistic system, thus introducing the "brand identity" concept.
In his third installment, the recently released Brand Leadership, Aaker updates and extends his earlier work and, yes, adds a chapter on building brands on the Internet. He makes a compelling argument for the emergence of the "brand leadership" model, which he says is replacing the "classic" brand system pioneered by Procter & Gamble in the 1930s.
In the book's preface, Aaker observes that "when brand equity became the hot topic of the late 1980s, it may have seemed like another management fad that would last only a few years." As Aaker reminds us, one industry after another has discovered that brand awareness, perceived quality, customer loyalty and strong brand associations and personality are essential to compete in the marketplace.
Yet questions linger. One wonders about Aaker's own "equity" in convincing us that brands are still the dominant form of business strategy. Aside from his academic role, he also has strong connections with two large brand consulting firms - Prophet Brand Strategy and the Brand Leadership Company.
Is Brand Leadership in fact a theoretical argument more than it is an observation of a trend? In many ways, brands don't fit the Internet Economy. Aaker quotes George Fisher, CEO of Kodak: "Online gives us a way to meet customer needs unmatched since the days of the door-to-door salesman." But he conveniently forgets all the door-to-door salesmen who had doors slammed in their faces.
As more searches rely on price or auction-based exchanges, it's highly likely that a lot of brands won't make it to customers' doorsteps, let alone their doors. After all, what relevance do brand qualities - name, personality, image - have in online searches that depend primarily on price?
As Aaker himself observes, "no longer is the brand safe in splendid isolation behind guard ropes. Instead it walks among the people, a situation that presents risk and rewards in equal measure."
There is the distinct risk that, one day soon, brands will be just another face in the crowd.