Today's buyers are increasingly overwhelmed with data, information and choices. In the US, for example, the average household receives 100 TV channels and some digital cables distribute several times that offering; supermarkets carry 15,000 to 25,000 SKUs; the number of titles handled by the average magazine wholesaler has doubled in 10 years to about 5,000; over 40 billion web pages are linked to the Internet. How can the mind reasonably process that outpouring of data? The answer is that it can't! That is precisely why branding has become so helpful.
Branding acts like an indexed dictionary in the mind of the buyer. Rather than looking at every product, zapping every TV channel, flipping every page published daily in the press, we seek short cuts to the information we need.
Moreover, this mental dictionary is rather specialized: The brain stores information in categories—e.g., food, flowers, f-words—and retrieves it in the same way.
Finally, as every word of our dictionary receives a definition, every brand name leads to an association of memories, creating a brand image in our mind. Conversely, when all the attributes of that image are assembled, the mind may recall the initial brand. Thus, if you seek a masculine cigarette that makes you feel independent and free, Marlboro will probably pop into your mind.
Therefore, it is the task of branders to have their brand name remembered on the top of the list—or the top of the mind—when the individual is in the market to buy. This is precisely where branding meets marketing.
For example, if you decide to buy a new car, VW would hope that you will consider it first, among the dozens of great car makes that dealerships have to offer. Volkswagen's "da-da-da" campaign achieved exactly that among young buyers. The brand was perceived as being cool, inclusive and reliable, which was relevant for the audience that Volkswagen wanted to appeal to. Consequently, the results jumped off the chart.
As such, branding is more than just a promise of what the product or service will provide. It is a dialog between two trading groups who need to communicate effectively in a highly noisy environment.
In truth, this dialog is not always as romantic and dramatic as the verses between Romeo and Juliet. Particularly in the mass market—i.e., basically, most of the consumer products—the voice of the customer is too often heard through the distorting filters of market research, sales force feedback, and complaint letters. In turn, the brand communicates with the artificial warmth of a retail environment, a product, or an ad campaign. In sum, there is little of the face-to-face interaction that makes us human.
Some marketing communication is nonetheless creative enough to touch the heart. Some stores, for instance, have managed to become weekend destinations, like Ikea, Barnes & Noble, or Toys 'R' Us.
For marketers and customers, the advantage of communicating through brands is its efficiency. Rather than being a cold definition, as in the fictional dictionary mentioned earlier, the brand embodies an entire story, complete with functional and emotional considerations. People who buy Lacoste jerseys, for example, will frequently share the same anecdote: Their younger children wear the jerseys that have become too small for their big brothers. There is no need for long explanations and justifications; it is luxury that does not wear out or go out of fashion. Even in crowded department stores, Lacoste's message will therefore be heard, conveying what it stands for with no more than a crocodile display.
The importance of brands and branding is growing because the complexity of our lives has grown. There was a time when people sat, over a hot drink, with the village mechanics to discuss the merit of this or that engine design. Not only would we not take the time to do so anymore, but neighborhood mechanics barely understand how modern cars run. Therefore, we have come to trust—and sometimes distrust—brands.
We can debate at length the kind of society we want. Some will look with nostalgia at the community of trusted shopkeepers and craftsmen of yesteryear. Others will concentrate on the broader choice and lower prices that mass retail has brought. But we should not shoot summarily at branding as the illness of our changing society. It is only the messenger.