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Is the Definition of Brand Increasingly “Brand-Less”?

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Brand is one of those words like art or even marriage. It’s a noun, but not a person, place, or thing. It’s an idea, a big and somewhat vague one. Ask ten people to explain it, and you’ll get ten different responses, all as unique as they are alike.

Not only is the definition of brand up for debate, it’s ever-evolving, shifting to meet new consumer demands and leverage new technology. Throughout its 4,000-year history, the concept has incorporated livestock owners claiming their cattle, early artisans claiming credit for their work, and eventually manufacturers claiming ownership of their products. Today, marketers brand pretty much anything, from collateral and content to events and experiences. (Heck, Zappos even branded a porta-potty, or Porta-Party.)

Yes, corporate branding has changed over the centuries—even since the 1950s and ’60s, that advertising heyday when a catchy jingle and clever commercial were enough to dominate an industry. Since then, business experts have more than once predicted the death of brands, suggesting they will be rendered irrelevant by product standardization and consumers who become more skeptical as they become more informed.

That attitude is exactly what new online grocer, Brandless, is banking on. The company is “unapologetically a brand,” as cofounder Tina Sharkey puts it. The difference, she says, “is that in 2017 we’re reimagining what it means to be a brand.”

Sharkey and her team are going about it in a unique and brilliant way, but their goal is not unique. Any smart marketer is currently reimagining what it means to be a brand in the digital age, and will continue doing so again and again, because the definition of brand won’t stop changing anytime soon. If anything, the pace of evolution will continue to quicken.

“Brand is just as relevant as ever, but developing and managing a brand today is a very different discipline,” says Manon Herzog, a global brand strategist and cofounder of Herzog & Schindler. “What matters more than ever is the ability to tell a compelling story across touchpoints—physical and digital—in a highly distinct voice, and the ability to evolve and pivot.”

Brand distinction, Herzog says, is exactly what Brandless has done so well. So what can the ironically named grocer teach other brands about evolving, and what does it take to pivot in today’s multichannel, platform-driven digital world?

Is the Future “Brand-Less”?

Think about your most recent trip to the grocery store. The products on the shelves, and the ones in your cart, were mostly recognizable brands, right? The brands you know and trust, the brands your parents bought, the brands you’re accustomed to eating. But if you’re like many Americans, more and more private label products are ending up in your shopping cart.

Private labels (also called generic or store brands) now account for 14 percent of grocery sales, and experts expect that number to keep growing. After all, while food prices keep going up, so do the quality standards among many private labels. A decade or so ago, generic chips tasted generic. How about some store-brand coffee? Oh, please no. But private labels have upped their game, and shoppers have noticed.

Brandless is taking advantage of shoppers’ willingness to forgo their once-favorite brands, as well as growing consumer interest in healthier foods (think no sugar, organic, non-GMO, vegan). The digital retailer’s entire line of simply packaged foods and household supplies sells for $3. The company claims this is possible because you don’t pay what they call the BrandTax—the up-to-40 percent markup that brands put on their products—and because they only make one version of each product they sell.

Products from Brandless

Fewer products might seem counterintuitive, but the company’s streamlined inventory is actually another selling point. In fact, it’s the point—to make shopping less overwhelming by offering fewer choices.

Just consider the age-old pre-dinner conversation: the one where you ask your significant other, “What do you want to do about dinner?” and he says, “I don’t know. What do you want to do about dinner?” And then you fight the urge to say, “Duh, I obviously want you to decide and spare me the chore of choosing. That’s why I asked you in the first place.”

It’s good to have choices, but choosing takes brainpower. For some items, you probably have a firm brand preference, and for larger purchases, you certainly think about what brand to buy. But who wants to waste precious mental resources deciding between ten different brands of white rice?

Everything about Brandless is designed to be simple—its inventory, its no-frills product packaging, its additive-free foods. But don’t let the name fool you; everything about Brandless is very much branded.

Herzog says the company isn’t actually trying to fool anyone. “It is more that the consumer is in on the joke,” she explains. “Brandless is a very developed brand—from design to story to voice to the trademarks they put on their name and even the word BrandTax. The name Brandless and concept inherent in it has many meanings, which makes for a rich story. It isn’t just about no brand, it is also about less brands—the consumer doesn’t have to choose and hunt. Furthermore, it’s a call to action for consumers: Fill your life with less brands.”

Or as Brandless would put it, fill your life with “just what matters.” (That slogan is trademarked, too, by the way.)

It’s Complicated to Be Simple

It’s too early to determine if Brandless will be successful. The site just launched in July, after raising $50 million in funding from investors such as New Enterprise Associates and Google Ventures. But whether it turns out to be a big hit or a total flop, Herzog says there’s much that marketers across industries can learn from Brandless—the most important lesson being to simplify your product, your brand, and your user experience.

“The formula for successful branding is now more about offering a distinct product and the right experience, not necessarily being a highly recognizable, well-established brand,” says Herzog. “People are more willing to try new things, if the new offering solves the need better than somebody else. And simplicity greatly matters in terms of choice, interaction, and shopping experience.”

Herzog says this is where technology really comes into play. “Consumer-centricity will matter more in the future than it already does today. And the type of consumer-centricity we have come to expect is due to platform-driven businesses, such as Amazon. Established brands are at a disadvantage, because most were not platform-driven at their inception, so they are scrambling to catch up with the consumer and incumbents who are far ahead in the technology and data game.”

Delivering a simple customer experience is just one aspect of branding. You also have to get your audience’s attention and convince them to even have a customer experience. And as any modern marketer knows, that is complicated. Today, it is easier than ever to communicate directly with your audience across a plethora of channels, but it’s easier for every other brand (including your competitors) to do that, too. Plus, there are just so many channels.

“Today’s platform-driven marketplace is highly fractured due to the many channels in which brands have to communicate,” says Herzog. “Then they have to tailor the story to fit each and every channel. That means brands have to be better storytellers than ever, and that the product and experience have to be more distinct than ever to break through. The brands that seem to succeed the most in this environment offer a truly distinct product and experience. I think brands today have to master three interconnected disciplines: brand—the defining idea; media—the story told across many channels; technology—the consumer-centric experience.”

Special edition Campbell's soup cans with Andy Warhol's autograph.

Image attribution: Jonn Leffmann

The Brand Behind Your Brand Storytelling

Herzog’s definition of brand is the “defining idea.” It’s the theme of all your stories, the inspiration for all your designs, and the intrinsic value you agree to provide. Communicating that idea is how you make connections with your audience. It’s how you build relationships with them—and all relationships are different.

“Not every brand hits the same cord,” says Herzog. “Some brands are merely functional. Think FedEx. I drop the envelope in the box and trust FedEx to deliver it at the right time. Campbell’s is a highly emotionally based brand. Their soups are not really that nutritious—it’s mostly salt water—but there’s that connection to being sick and the idea of mom taking care of us, and that brings us back. Apple is the ultimate social badge. Their products, at a functional level, are not greatly different from many others in the space, but Apple customers feel they are part of a tribe—a creative class that thinks differently.”

So what is your brand’s brand? If you don’t define the idea for your audience, they’ll define it for you. Or perhaps more likely, they won’t care enough to give it a second thought. After all, the marketplace is crowded, and consumers like simple.

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Featured image attribution: Amos Bar-Zeev

Taylor Mallory Holland is a freelance writer, editor, and content marketer specializing in technology, healthcare, and business leadership. As a content strategist, Holland contributes thought leadership content for some of the world's top brands, including Samsung, IBM, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, and UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine. She has been a contributor for The Content Standard since 2014.

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