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January 31, 2013 4:25 PM

On Death And Dying Brands

The new art of branding.

How many painters do you know in your city or town? Not the kind with dropsheets and white overalls who will refresh your old basement bathroom with a splashy buckland blue over a long weekend, but the true artist. The one who is toiling away in their studio - day and night - trying to create their lifetime masterpiece. For centuries, the vast majorities of these artists have done what thousands of artists have done for centuries before them: starve. If you thought that your industry had cut-throat margins and lacks compassion in how it churns out individuals, spend some time at a local artist's studio. While the Internet has brought with it many media disruptions and technological innovations, it has also created a truly global marketplace. Now, these artists, no longer have to toil away in their studio with the hopes that their local cafe will afford them the privilege of a local vernissage. Suddenly, through online marketplaces like eBay and Etsy, these artists have a global audience and are able to sell their creations to anybody and everybody who takes the time to discover them. In these instances, it's has also become common for these artists to work directly with their customers to deliver both the perfect size and look for their homes and offices. While that may not be the shiniest and brightest innovation to capture your attention today, it proved to be the beginning instances of a significant movement and building of an entirely new industry (with significant economy) in the space of unbranded items.

Have the big brands lost their power over consumers?

When you walk into the home or office of individuals who have made purchases from these artists, you're not immediately pointing to them and saying, "Cezanne! Picasso! Warhol! Renoir!" These are - for the most part - unbranded works created to be both customized and personalized. The time and patience to beat a brand into the zeitgeist of the modern consumer seems to be a trend that is now in direct competition to many new entrants that are producing these customized and personalized - nearly unbranded - products for an ever-growing global consumer-base that is interested less in the label and brand experience and much more in something that can be uniquely "them." 

No logo... for real?

In Naomi Klein's controversial 1999 book, No Logo, the author looked at various anti-consumer movements that sprung up during the 1990s. This included everything from the publication, Adbusters, to sweatshop labor protests and beyond. The book acted as a counter-culture movement that looked at the inequalities of everything from globalization and the environment to the impact of Western civilization's consumerism on overall world health. Ultimately, it generated activism, culture jamming and public discourse that has become a more broad-based movement. I bet Klein could have never imagined a retail experience like Selfridges & Co. The UK-based company was voted Best Department Store in the World at the Global Department Store Summit in 2012. With stores in London, Birmingham and two in the Manchester region, they are experimenting (and succeeding) with a very counter-intuitive brand strategy of creating silence. Imagine a department store where electronic devices (with all of their beeps and buzzes) are forbidden, and companies like Headspace (an organization that is trying to both demystify and modernize meditation with a cool iPhone app that makes relaxing an easy-to-learn and do activity) have partnered with Selfridges to offer up Headspace pods throughout the store that offers different guided meditations for shoppers to calm themselves to. What's most unique about this sea of tranquility in the storm of a retail environment is The Quiet Shop. Beyond the minimalist design and carefully curated fashion, accessories and beauty products, some of the world's most respected brands have actually removed their logos for this collection Selfridges has dubbed, "de-branded products." The Quiet Shop features Levi's, Creme de la Mer and even Beats by Dre, without their signature logos.           

Will this concept of unbranded brands become that much commonplace in our lives?

If you look at some of the most interesting coverage of this past year's CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas, the vast majority of gadget geeks were not paying that much attention to what the mass manufacturers were coming out with (bigger TVs, louder sound systems and thinner smartphones), but the true attention was being given to some of the newer initiatives that were launching courtesy of platforms like Kickstarter (the simple crowdfunding platform that allows individuals to post their business projects and start an online threshold pledge system for the funding of their ventures). Look no further than the Pebble watch. While it scored tons of attention for generating over ten million dollars in sales on Kickstarter in under thirty days, the product is without traditional brand markings. No logo. No nothing. The majority of the goods available on the contemporary flash sale site, Fab, also lack any brand unique markings. The maker movement is creating an entirely new industry of individuals who are creating newer products that are both completely individualized for consumers and a lot of those are brand-less.

A brand is more than a logo.

All too often, something that does not have a logo is often mis-perceived as lacking brand. Any Marketing 101 course will tell you that a logo is but one important component of what makes a brand. That aside, these massive shifts in how we buy (online, peer-to-peer and with a vast, global selection) coupled with modern technology (crowdfunding platforms, 3D printers, ability to manufacture fewer products while maintaining margins) brings us to a potentially interesting crossroads, where what we have previously defined as a brand (design, experience and how it makes us feel within our social class) gets trumped by a new generation of brands that are without logo, built on pure utility and function, and are highly unbranded by intent. Suddenly, brands like Beats by Dre are creating products much in the same way that the painter is on Etsy. In a sense, the more unbranded these traditional brands become, the more humane and interesting they seem to be.

What this leads us to, is a unique moment in time when we may have to re-define what a "brand" truly is.

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Harvard Business Review. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:

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