Friday, August 04, 2006

The "Long tail" of brand design

Last Sunday Rob Walker wrote in the NY Times magazine about the emerging underground brands like aNYthing”, “Barking Irons”, or “The Hundreds” and how these brands are changing the whole brand development process. These new brands are built not around products or even ideas but through the urge to combine a particular self expression that materializes itself with utter commoditization. It’s not even about a particular self image or any kind of subversive desire but about distributing the expression across as many sellable media as possible, from t-shirts to videos, from coffee mugs to paintings.

Walker does not expand on the paradigm shift in brand development that he seems to observe. Traditionally brands have been developed from products or services that had a benefit advantage that consumers could perceive. It all started in the late 19th century when packaged good companies needed to identify their products across a wide geographic area without any local connection. Then over the last 20 or 30 years, brands expressed stronger and stronger a particular life style that is expressed by the offered product or service. It was a less an objective (almost material) benefit but an emotional aura that the brand was able to communicate. Now brands like aNYthing or the Barking Irons are fully dissociated from any kind of product or even idea. The lifestyle (how nebulous it might be) is the centerpiece of the brand definition.

This emerging paradigm shift of how brands are developed can move into two directions:
  • It will be a short lived phenomena since no brand can last too long without any benefit oriented structure, either physical or emotional. The barriers of entries are just too low; today’s consumers are just too fickle to develop any long term loyalty to these kinds of brands.
  • This paradigm shift will just get stronger. And here enters Chris Anderson with his “Long Tail” philosophy, where the number of hit brands will decrease while the numbers of smaller brands and potentially short lived brands like “The Hundreds” will take over a bigger portion of consumer’s mind set.

What can a mature brand do to be prepared for both possible outcomes? On the one hand it must further strengthen what the brand really stands for in a long lasting differentiated manner, on the other hand it can empower the consumer to build their “long-tailed” version of expressing the particular brand in multiple ways. I am not able to predict where this paradigm of brand development is going but we marketer have to be prepared either way.


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