Brands: New Frontiers in Marketing

In this blog post, Cyril Maury argues that in a context of information abundance, brands are losing relevance, both as proxies for product quality and as identity building blocks. He argues instead for a way forward that takes advantage of new technological gains whilst simultaneously recognising the changing needs of this new generation of customers.

How relevant are brands today?

In the past, brands have generally fulfilled two main functions: 1. as proxies for quality – simply put, people need brands to help them identify which products are of fair quality only as long as they have no better way to do it; and 2. as identity building blocks – shared signs used to express one’s identity with peers in a language everyone understood.

With the advent of digitalisation however, these functions are largely becoming irrelevant.

In a recent global research project we conducted on the attitudes and behaviours of digital natives, our research showed that people are now building their identity as much online as offline, they can draw from an endless pool of meaning-rich signs to express who they are. Better yet, they can create multi-media content to precisely paint the persona they aspire to be and effortlessly broadcast it to the world.

Brands are still one of the signs they can use to tell that story. But they can also reveal it through existing content (one of the stickiest Spotify features is the constant social broadcasting of people’s playlist), capturing their life in pictures or videos (e.g. me and my wife eating at this delicious yet not too formal Korean BBQ joint), or even directly stating their opinions or preferences (causes, surveys, likes, status, etc.).

Brands arguably used to be the main type of social identity building block. Now, they are just one of many. They are shifting from being the most to the least efficient way to create and broadcast one’s identity.

Ironically, branding experts understood that shift long ago. As brands are created meaning-poor, marketers try to enrich them with content – what they call “brand content strategies”. Yet if brands require content, content doesn’t need brands, leaving brand strategists to fight an uphill battle.

Brands made sense in a mass-market world, less so in a long-tail one

This conjunction of factors is conspiring to retire the brand as the most practical unit to simplify people’s lives. Brands – whether as proxies for quality or as bricks to build identity – are just not precise enough any longer.

The people we spoke to during our research came back to the idea that the product or offer – not the brand – was the unit that made sense to guide their choices. They go online, check and compare reviews, and ultimately decide if a specific product or offer is good for them.

Relatedly, we asked tens of digital natives what their favourite brands were. Of the few who did name a brand (most did not), only three named a clothing brand: Nike, Adidas (both for functional attributes: comfort and durability) and Gucci. Brands just did not seem very relevant for them to build identity.

In contrast, virtually all the digital natives we spoke to were using digital content (which they sometimes created themselves and sometimes borrowed) to build and express their identity.

People now fully expect companies to adapt to their unique needs

Underpinning the rejection of brands is peoples’ increasing self-confidence and the belief that they are able to: evaluate if something is good for them, based on unique, endogenous criteria; and precisely define their identity using a vast range of signifiers, including content they created themselves.

In a self-reinforcing loop, this belief is fuelled – and fuels – the hyper-personalisation that characterises the current business world. As companies are able to target individuals with relevant offers, people are increasingly expecting products and offers to be relevant to their unique and contextual needs.

What does this mean for brands moving forward?

The fundamental needs once fulfilled by brands will not vanish. People still require the convenience to know what product works for them, and ways to express their social identity. Yet as the power dynamics between companies and people shifts, executives need to recognise that people are increasingly demanding and sophisticated customers.

Rather than the end of brands, our insights point to the need for companies to rethink how they can help people by:

– Simplifying their choices without disempowering them

– Building and projecting their identity through a rich, precise and convenient language

If the early signs we witnessed are revealing an emerging trend, then we could be looking at a major disruption ahead.

If this topic is important for your company, or you would like to know more about our insights and perspective on the future of branding and GenZ, please contact us at:

February 14, 2019