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The Future of Brands
October 2000

Suppose you go to a Ford dealership and buy a new car off the lot. What brand is it? A Ford, of course. Suppose you go to a website operated by Ford, as Ford would like you to do in future, and select the body type, accessories, the engine, the traction control system, the on-board computer, the satellite navigation system, the financing plan, and set a delivery date to your driveway of five days hence. What brand is it? Still a Ford, of course. Now suppose that each of the things you selected to go into the car you just ordered was created by someone other than Ford, including parts from Nissan, DaimlerChrysler, Honda, Compaq, Trimble, plus a variety of suppliers youíve never heard of. Suppose, in fact, that the Ford Motor Company never clapped eyes on the individually customized vehicle you ordered through their website. Is it still a Ford? If so, what is it about this one-of-a-kind vehicle that makes it a Ford?

What we consider a brand is changing from a concrete thing to something less tangible Ė but perhaps more important. Naomi Klein, author of No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (Random House, January 2000), put her finger on it when she said that the product is 'mere filler for the real product: the brand.' Iím not sure thereís much else on which Ms. Klein and I agree, but we do agree on that.

So, if a brand is not just a product (or a service), and itís not necessarily produced by the owner of the brand, then what is a brand, and why is it important? Very simply, a brand is your total experience with the company that sold it to you. The product or service is merely the means of conveying that experience. A good brand engenders trust in the purchaser; you know that you will get the expected and desired result because the brand owner will stand behind it. Hence, a 'virtual Ford' will be one where Ford Motor Company guarantees your experience, no matter what parts are used in the physical automobile.

This all sounds a bit esoteric, and for those who have read their Plato (or Socrates, if you wish), this is a little like making a distinction between a horse, and 'horseness,' the essential nature of horses. This is important in a world of information overload, because a brand becomes an important channel marker. Let me illustrate. A friend of mine recently got a new bread making machine, and wanted a good book of bread recipes to try. She inquired at a big box bookstores, and the clerk pointed to a display of 29 different recipe books for bread. Now, no one in this day and age is going to take the time to compare and evaluate 29 different bread books. To narrow the field, they are going to look for brand names they recognize, whether itís Julia Child, James Beard, Betty Crocker, or Readerís Digest. (As an aside, note that two of these ďbrand namesĒ are people.) The book buyer will then look at three or four books and make their selection from that much narrower field. In a world with too many choices, brands become an efficient means of paring them down.

The implications of this are enormous. Just for starters, a brand experience starts at the moment the end customer decides she wants something that your brand might supply. Itís not tied to the product, but to the experience, and the experience starts when the customer believes it does, not where the producer thinks he can manage it. It also means that, as long as you donít dilute the value of brand-as-channel-marker, you donít have to stick to the traditional things youíve sold people in the past. If youíre providing an experience, then how itís delivered becomes a secondary concern. It also means that the experience can be ruined by things that have nothing to do with the physical product, such as how you treat your workers. In an e-world, these subtle changes can mean billions of incremental dollars.

Accordingly, a well-known, well-respected brand becomes a tremendously valuable Ė but fragile Ė thing to the brand owner. And, as mass customization (the production of customized products at a mass production price) and assassin marketing (the targeting of a specific individual for singular marketing appeals) eventually lead us to nothing but unique products, the brand is migrating towards trust and a promise of performance, and away from a specific, well-defined, mass produced result.

There are many other implications as well, but letís leave it at this for now: those who adapt to the new reality of brands will grow fat. Those who miss the point will disappear.

by futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

© Copyright, IF Research, October 18, 2000.

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