Everything is a brand today. Brand experts even tell us that we must build our own personal brand. Everywhere we look, brands are attacking us. We are lucky to get through a day without being bombarded with over 5,000 brand messages (Yankelovich study), of which only about 12 get any brain attention. Over 4 million new brand names every year are added to the brand shopping list. There is a severe problem of brand overload. Is it essential to have over 50 shampoo brands and hundreds of specialized types to give you the perfect bouncy, curly, wavy, shiny, or smooth tresses?
The biggest problem facing companies today is the world is running out of pronounceable brand names. As a result, we are making it almost impossible for consumers to keep up. The World Intellectual Property Organization report that in absolute terms, trademark demand quadrupled from just under 1 million applications per year in 1985 to 4.2 million trademark applications by 2011. In developing countries such as China, India, and Brazil, the rise in trademark applications is exploding. In four years, there have been approximately 16.8 million new trademark applications.
Are we reaching a point of saturation where the proliferation of brands is doing more harm than good? Unfortunately, our memory banks can’t keep up.
Barry Schwartz, Ph.D., a Swarthmore College psychologist and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, explains, “there’s a point where all of this choice starts to be not only unproductive but counterproductive – a source of pain, regret, worry about missed opportunities and unrealistically high expectations.”
Have we reached a state where a brand can no longer differentiate itself from other brands? How many deep brand relationships do we want or can handle in our busy lives? A Gallup research study (2004) suggests that, on average, Americans say they have about nine close friends, and the older you get, the number maxes out to 13 close friends. So can we expect more from consumers concerning a meaningful relationship with brands?
The Beginning of Brands
We can blame Japan for starting some of the world’s first and oldest brands, such as Kongo Gumi, established in the year 578, and Hoshi Ryokan, founded in 718, according to William O’Hara’s book Centuries of Success. Kongo Gumi is a construction company that built Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and castles. But after surviving 14 centuries (1,428 years!) as a family business, it closed its doors in 2006. There wasn’t a huge demand for building temples anymore, occupying 80% of their business focus. Hoshi Ryokan is a Japanese inn located in Komatsu for over 1300 years. You can book a room today on booking.com. In a study conducted by the Bank of Korea, they discovered over 3,146 companies over 200 years old in Japan, 837 in Germany, 222 in the Netherlands, and 196 in France.
Brands Come & Go
But brand age doesn’t guarantee brand success. Jim Collins, a co-author of Built to Last—Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, says brands must follow unchanging and sustainable principles of who they are yet constantly changing their actions and how they do it. Today, many brands knew who they are but don’t dare to change what they do, such old favorites as Kodak, Blackberry, Blockbuster, Nokia, and Hummer. Check out the article Lessons from the Brand Graveyard.
If you went back to the Fortune 500 in 1955, 88% of those brands no longer exist on the 2014 Fortune 500 list. Brands continually get destroyed by mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcies, or break-ups. As a result, there is a healthy churn in brands coming and going. Steven Denning reported in Forbes that fifty years ago, the life expectancy of a firm in the Fortune 500 was around 75 years. Today, it’s less than 15 years and declining all the time.
That said, about 250,000 new brands are launched each year globally, keeping the world’s advertising agencies busy. However, Lynn Dornblaser, an analyst at market research firm Mintel who tracks new products, says the typical failure rate of new product launches can be anywhere from 85% to 95%. That’s a lot of new business cards and advertising wasted. For example, Schneider Associates and research partners SymphonyIRI Group and Sentient Decision Science did a consumer survey (2010) that found that 45% of participants couldn’t name a new product brand.
The Virgin of Everything
But all these setbacks in launching a new brand haven’t stopped brand extension and the introduction of new products.
Many brands have tried to extend their brands from the classic offering to capture new markets and target groups—some successfully and others with less clarity. I call it the ‘Virgin of Everything.’ Sir Richard Branson has taken the irreverent and fun Virgin brand and has stretched it across 350 different products, from life insurance to lingerie. David Taylor, the blogger on Brand Gym, said in his article Virgin: the worst or best of brand extension? This was a “brand ego trip, where the brand gets too big for its boots.”
Then there are sub-brands of brands with unique attributes, quality, and value levels. For example, Coca-Cola with its line of Classic Coke, Diet Coke, Caffeine Free Coke, Caffeine Free Diet Coke, etc. Nothing is simple today—too many choices.
Everything in life is moving faster and faster. Nothing is predictable and digital technologies are changing everything except our brains. Humans still have only so much memory power and capacity to retain and process information. Bob Nease, behavioral scientist and author of the book, The Power of Fifty Bits, explains that the brain can process 10 billion bits of data each second, but when it comes to the “decision-making part of the brain [it] only processes a maximum of 50 bits per second.” This is a significant bottleneck in decision-making that won’t change anytime soon. Just think, we have a bandwidth issue in our brains. The proliferation of brands and branding messages means fewer chances that new brands will find a permanent place in a consumer’s mind. Steve Jobs said on his return to Apple in 1997, “For me, marketing is about values. This is a boisterous world, and we’re not going to get a chance to get people to remember much about us. So, we must be clear about what we want them to know about us.” Almost twenty years later, Jobs’ comment is even more relevant today. A simple route to the consumer’s head and the heart no longer exists.
We can get a new product brand to market faster and more efficiently than ever. We have more channels to get our message out than ever before. But the resulting complexities have created brand apathy. As we continue along this path of madness, brands have less of a chance to be successful. Aldo Cundari, CEO of Cundari agency, explains in his book Customer-Centric Marketing, “The new customer behavior has serious implications for all brands. If organizations don’t commit to meeting their customers’ expectations today, customers will go elsewhere tomorrow.”
What Cundari says isn’t revolutionary thinking, but the warning signs are everywhere—consumers are reaching a point of brand overkill. It’s like a stadium full of brands screaming to persuade potential customers to go for their brand. The noise is deafening.
Put our branding feet into the consumer’s shoes for a day. They truly need our support.
Help them manage the daily complexities, simplify the burden of choices and reduce the cognitive load. Be where they want your brand to be and be relevant. Solve their problems even before they become problems. Take away the need for them to make another decision or remember another brand name.
Automate to eliminate repeating issues or tasks. Make them feel good even when your brand isn’t about feeling good. Help them navigate a simpler life. Stop yelling and start listening more.
Your brand will be rewarded for its simple solutions, not for more choices. Remember, less is more, and always be empathetic and relevant.
Just be human.