Is branding due for a comeback?

On the cyclical importance of brand

I’ve been working in marketing for nearly 30 years—the first ten of which were fairly predictable. Followed by a magical era of digital wonder and creation. Then the last five? All we can say is “embrace change”. Regardless of the technology du jour, the common question throughout was always “What can companies do to be more competitive?” The importance of brand in that equation has seemed to wax and wane with the lifecycles of varying emerging technologies, each time, following a predictable arc.

 

Brand doesn’t matter anymore, until it does

In the early to mid ‘00s, when SEO first became a “thing”, the digital and marketing press were quick to prematurely announce the death of traditional marketing and branding. The idea, as it was conveyed, was that proper SEO would circumvent any need for traditional brand value. If a customer searched, SEO would deliver your site at the top of their search results, resulting in a visit and a purchase. Simple, right? It was relatively easy to influence page rank in the beginning. Keyword stuffing. Random links. Backlinks. It’s not that SEO wasn’t an effective tool for marketers, it’s just that it was a tool for discovery. And in that early period, one of the most effective at that. But the idea that consumers would suddenly be brand blind once they landed upon a search-optimized site was misguided. Further, as SEO practices became standardized and its implementation de rigueur, it ceased to be a competitive advantage for anyone. The inputs to the system grew exponentially. The effects of individual manipulation were diminished. Obviously, for most businesses, that meant SEO wasn’t a game changer. It was (and is) simply a game that must be played; it’s table stakes. Follow that with Google’s RankBrain search algorithm that basically broke years of SEO strategy work, and suddenly marketers needed a new fix.

 

Just another incidence of history repeating

It happened again with content/inbound marketing. Inbound evangelists declared traditional marketing and branding passé, feeble or out of step with the modern consumer’s jaded opinions of advertising. Inform, teach, inspire your prospects with long-form thought leadership and they will beat a path to your door (well, site). At first, the novelty of this path to purchase, like SEO before it, provided an outsized payoff for early adopters who mastered its technique. But, unsurprisingly, if every competitor in a market begins to funnel resources into content/inbound marketing, again, the advantage transforms into table stakes. And this is what occurred in many markets. As the effectiveness of content strategies waned, many marketers began to produce a higher volume of content, inspiring creation of the term “content shock”. Many marketing pundits are now predicting the imminent collapse of the effectiveness of the medium under its own weight. It may be that an explosion of long form content could have the same effect on content marketing effectiveness. But much like SEO, it may end up being an unwinnable game every marketer is forced to play. 

 

In the end, brand is the only sustainable advantage

All markets eventually succumb to commoditization. Patents expire. Best practices disseminate. Competition multiplies. The only defense against downward spiraling margin is brand affinity or, to co-opt a phrase from Alan Greenspan, “irrational exuberance”. That is not to say marketers don’t need to continually adapt to new media and technologies. They must. But we should all be wary of promises or predictions of value made by those most vested in the success of the new medium itself. Purveyors of content marketing tools, makers of AI-driven chatbots, SEO gurus, all will position their particular flavor of marketing to be the elixir of success. But history has shown us that specific technologies or media outlets may briefly pick their own winners and losers; the greatest long-term market value has always belonged to great brands. Have you seen Apple’s twitter account? Trick question. They’ve never had one. Their SEO is fairly rudimentary. And content marketing? Nope. That may seem an unfair example, as we are talking about the largest company on the planet. But I believe that is exactly the point. They became that by focusing on building their brand at every customer touchpoint. Through product. Though user experience. And through traditional branding and marketing. 

 

Don’t call it a comeback

Just looking at the frequency of search for the term “branding” on Google for the past five years is telling. It seems like, as a population, we try to ignore branding in favor of the marketing technology of the day. But eventually, we realize that branding derives its value from something more basic—human nature. And human nature will never change… at least until we add some cool new tech directly into our brains.


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