Do Your Customers Need A Brand Detox?

Would you be offended if a potential match on a dating website paid a premium so he or she wouldn’t have to go out with you? That’s essentially the statement that one version of the popular freemium business strategy makes to marketers. Sure, a freemium often delivers additional functionality for a fee compared to the free version. But for many the real attraction of an upgrade like Pandora One is the chance to shop, play or work in an ad-free environment. When consumers are willing to pony up to avoid seeing your ads, you know there’s trouble in paradise. Is a branding detox a good idea?

What brought us to this point?  Talk about poisoning the well: Depending whom you ask, we are exposed to 4,000 to 10,000 ad messages everyday. These exact numbers may be apocryphal, but there’s no doubt we’re all assaulted by brand messages that scream to us on billboards and screens, from within TV shows and movies, and even on Post-It notes and refrigerator magnets. Most of us live in a state of sensory overload. We are exposed to far more information than we can process. That means the fight for your attention—or what some marketers refer to as an eyeball economy—gets more fierce all the time.

Is this bombardment contributing to logo fatigue? Luxury brands think so. Big players like Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Prada are struggling as many wealthy customers favor less ostentatious products. As I discuss in my Consumer Behavior textbook, those “in the know” often can recognize a subtle status marker when another member of their elite group displays it, such as the distinctive design of a bag or watch—these are “quiet signals.” In contrast, some people may feel the need to almost hit others over the head with their bling; they use “loud signals.” The level of brand prominencepeople prefer tends to vary by social class, but regardless products that hit you over the head with their “brandedness” may be passé.

Small wonder that many of us resent intrusions by the multitude of brands that vie for our loyalty. Edelman’s 2017 Trust Barometer reported in 2016 that just 45% of respondents said they trusted business overall. That number dropped to 33% in 2017. Worse news for marketers: Almost one-half of consumers say they don’t trustbrands, and this figure skyrockets among Millennials.

We appear to be entering a period of (mild) rebellion against brands. Consider these related developments in our culture:

  • The popular mindfulnessmovement encourages followers to slow down, tune out distractions (like advertising), and focus on what they’re feeling at the moment. Note: Meditation-related businesses in the United States alone generate almost $1 billion in revenue per year – perhaps you see the irony in that?
  • Declutteringhas become an obsession for many as people gleefully discard the products they have accumulated; true believers revere this purging process for its Zen-like flavor.  The Tiny House Movementencourages us to downsize our living environments since we no longer need all that closet space.
  • As our attachment to social media grows, so too do concerns about addiction to our phones and other devices.  Lately we start to see more earnest conversations about the value of a social media detoxto restore life balance. I assign one of these (for 72 hours) to my students – they all suffer mightily, then thank me at the end for forcing them to step away from their devices at least for a few days. Of course, they’re also delighted to rejoin the digital ranks when the exercise is over.
  • The startup CPG company Brandlesssells plainly packaged, high-end staples for $3 apiece.
  • The global anti-brandingmovement protests against corporate marketing campaigns. The “culture jamming” organization Adbusters advocates an annual Buy Nothing Day.

So, what’s the future of branding? Maybe we can glimpse it at — of all places — the stodgy Masters Golf Tournament. The event signs only five sponsors: AT&T, IBM, Mercedes-Benz, UPS and Rolex. Each pays more than $6 million for the privilege of having absolutely no signage at the course and sharing a total of four minutes of ads per broadcast hour. Now that’s “branding lite,” but it certainly doesn’t seem to deter these companies. from coming back for more the next year.

Back to the freemium model for a moment. Are we missing an interesting business opportunity here? If consumers are willing to pay for a website that is free of branding, imagine what they would fork over to live in a physical spot that’s devoid of logos . Like the social media detox movement, is there a place for a brand detox experience? Would you pay a premium to stay in a resort for a week where you didn’t encounter a single logo? Will we see brand-free zones in public places (especially schools) anytime soon?  We’re waking up to the reality of a Digital Divide that creates a gulf between those who can afford unfettered digital access and those who can’t.  Will we also witness the rise of “gated communities” that allow people with the resources to escape the branding onslaught, while others are left to cope with overbranding?

But wait, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Like tasty treats and premium wines, branding is a good thing — so long as we consume it in moderation. Brands play crucial roles in our lives and in our economy, and we’re not likely to forego them anytime soon. They are signals of quality. They provide continuity, and identify makers so that we can go after them if something doesn’t work as advertised.

Perhaps most importantly, they create a “personality” for the product, store or service that goes well beyond functional characteristics. When marketers do branding right, people love it. We’re passionate about the brands we care about and a huge body of research documents the supporting roles our favorite objects play in our lives. Consumers want to talk to the companies that make what they buy – especially if these entities get back to them right away. They rely upon brands to be educational (or at least interesting), and they award their loyalty to those that give back to the community. And, in our modern world where there the traditional touchstones of social identity like religion and a sense of place are few and far between, brands are the glue that unite us with kindred spirits.

The “nonbrand” movement essentially is a paradox wrapped in a layer of irony. Do the math: Even the lack of a brand is itself a brand. The brand goes well beyond the logo and a catchy package – it’s what consumers think of when a need is aroused. If you position your product as one that doesn’t require the trappings of branding, boom: You have just branded your product. And you can be sure that your customers will still go through the regular process of evaluating your “nonbrand” just as they do the other purchase decisions they constantly make.

But the devil is in the details. There’s responsible and clever branding, and then there’s overbranding on steroids. Maybe a “brand lite” environment isn’t such a bad idea – at least until we get lonely for the good old days of brand regular.  Everything in moderation.

My latest book is Marketers, Tear Down These Walls! Liberating the Postmodern Consumer.

Forbes June 18, 2018

Michael Solomon, Ph.D.