There’s a new book out about how people make purchasing decisions.
In Absolute Value, Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen argue that social media has changed everything (again). Amid more reliable sources of information, branding is losing its value:
“How people buy things has changed profoundly—yet the fundamental thinking about consumer decision making and marketing has not. Most marketers still believe that they can shape consumers’ perception and drive their behavior. In this provocative book, Stanford professor Itamar Simonson and bestselling author Emanuel Rosen show why current mantras about branding and loyalty are losing their relevance. When consumers base their decisions on reviews from other users, easily accessed expert opinions, price comparison apps, and other emerging technologies, everything changes. Counter to what we frequently hear, consumers will (on average) make better choices and act more rationally.”
On first glance, it’s good news for market research: we still need to understand how people form opinions, and there may be life in the old ‘influencers’ chestnut yet:
“Today, products are being evaluated more on their “absolute value, their quality,” Dr. Simonson said. Brand names mean less. The results suggest that companies should spend less money trying to shape consumer opinions in traditional ads, he said, and more on understanding what and who are shaping those opinions.”
But it’s bad news for branding. “…brands are less needed when consumers can assess product quality using better sources of information such as reviews from other users [or] expert opinion,” say Simonson & Rosen in HBR last month.
This is driving reaction from the plannersphere:
Twilight of the brand? Don’t bet on it – says Edward Boche. He argues in defence of branding: it’s not just a label and an advert, it’s the shaping of the whole product experience:
“A brand isn’t a mark or a logo or even an ad. It’s a combination of our expectations, past and anticipated experiences, and the promises the company makes and keeps. Branding is the way in which that story gets told and portrayed.”
Patricia McDonald, Chief Strategy Officer at Isobar UK, tweeted:
Jens Martin Skibsted & Rasmus Bech Hansen helpfully put this idea in a longer context. Guess what? ‘Brand is over’ isn’t a new idea. In Brands Aren’t Dead, But Traditional Branding Tools Are Dying, they say:
“Back in the days when the internet was young, many believed that as it grew brands would become a thing of the past. Leading information economy thinkers propagated this view, including Carl Shapiro and Hal R. Varian, who published the highly influential book, Information Rules, in 1999. The book predicted that the power of brands would shrink as people had access to more and more free information. This has clearly turned out to be wrong. In fact, the web has become dominated by, yes, a few big brands.”
So why do brands matter?
“The role of a brand is—and never was—just about solving an information problem. It’s about providing meaning and satisfying emotional needs. These fundamental human needs have not changed. To the contrary as consumers experience information overload, there might be a tendency to gravitate toward what’s known and comforting.”
The flow space of digital media flirts with descending into glossolalia, an unending stream of syllables, a continuous babble of sound becoming noise. Babel. It moves too fast for the whole to be interpretable as meaning. Instead we measure its parameters quantitatively: volume, velocity, and the network manifestations of power across tendrils of @s and follows and reblogs. Really it’s all one metric, pitch: the pitch of the hum of the servers, the pitch of digital fervour. The insect vitality of bees in the hive. You hear the intensity rising.
People are getting scared of this. Stream fatigue is rising. “It is easier to read Ulysses than it is to read the internet. Ulysses has an end, an edge. Ulysses can be finished. The Internet is never finished,” says Alexis Madrigal.
The challenge for brands is that customers can access more information and thereby make purchase decisions based on criteria that those brands don’t control.
The challenge for customers is that they can access more information. Information alone isn’t enough. Then they’ve got to make sense of it. Trip Advisor reviews are gamed. Blog posts are bought through “influencer marketing”. So are Amazon reviews, with Vine Voice. Besides, everything’s got the same score. What’s the difference between 4.2 and 4.1 actually mean? Is it worth £5 or £50? Who can tell?
An excess of information leads to paralysis.
And paralysis doesn’t lead to purchase.
Thus brand. Brand as shortcut. Brand as, If they’ve got this much money to spend on an ad campaign, the product is probably good enough. This is our first model, brand as satisficer. Perhaps that’s not quite right, but it’s good enough.
But something else is going on. Why did I just buy a pair of Nike trainers?
So I bought a pair of running trainers a while ago. There’s definitely too much information out there about running trainers, and friends’ opinions or consumer reviews aren’t much good because their feet are probably not the funny triangular shape mine are. So I went to a running shop, and they filmed my funny flat, triangular feet in a variety of shoes (more information – help!) and then they said “Buy these ones” (option narrowing – yes!), and so I did.
I have no idea what brand those trainers are, even though I wear them a couple of times a week. They’re sort of purple.
But last night I bought a pair of Nike trainers. Nike Airs. I’m pretty fucking cynical about brands, but I definitely wanted a pair of Nike Airs. I wanted Nike Airs because I had been wearing black jeans and a biker jacket and a pair of beaten up boots all weekend, running all over London with my silly asymmetric hair and internet friends – and while those internet friends were saying I looked good, I felt old. The look was old, 5-10 years old. 2003 rock’n’roll with a pair of pseudo All Saints boots. I looked as frozen in time as Russell sodding Brand. This was inadequate.
Nike Airs take that outfit and make it contemporary. They’re good enough for the Fashion Week street style superstars, at least for the SS’14 (and I’m keeping my eyes hooked on the current show season). They’re certainly a bit ubiquitous – I was people watching on Broadway Market on Saturday, and aiii it’s like Converse never existed – but by god that’s better than being 5-10 years late. So I bought a pair on ASOS last night.
I bought Nike because the brand is potent. It is white hot right now, reaching this radiant point of semiotic excess where the fanboards on Tumblr and Pinterest are this unreadable mix of brand-generated and user-gen content – underground campaigns, limited-run collaborations; fashion editorial, Photoshop and fan art by actual sodding artists.
I cannot parse my own “Brand Appropriations” board any more: what even is this stuff?
I won’t call it “real vs. fake” because it is all real, that is the point: all the homages only make Nike more real and more culturally powerful. There is an excess of meaning, a surplus of signification, a chaotically generative potency, that spills over beyond the brand itself…
…And allows us, the consumer, to write with it. Write, write – is that the right verb? More that it allows us to take this surplus of meaning and inscribe it on ourselves, for ourselves. There is so much to the brand that – beyond advertising itself – it is able to do work for us, too: to reinscribe the meanings we already carry on ourselves into sharp, contemporary cultural forms.
Aka Nikes will update my fucking outfit.
“the ability to tell a meaningful story through actions and products, not words, is the only way to win.”
[Skibsted & Hansen]
It’s more than this, you know.
I started off talking about digital glossolalia, and how “It is easier to read Ulysses than it is to read the Internet. Because at least Ulysses has an end, an edge” (Madrigal).
This is what brands do, if they are working right: they provide edges. They’re points of disjunction in the ceaseless flow and thus distinction, difference. They’re focus points where multiple surfaces of meaning come together, and something novel is refracted. A holographic shattering of light.
It’s a kind of potency – and so messier, if you’re doing it right (like Nike are) than a “meaningful story”. It’s about meanings, plural and in excess – it’s about putting a lot of potential out there more than it’s about laying down anything definitive and fixed.
Brand content needs to be fractal, self-similar enough to be recognisable, but yet different at every point. We’re turning to brands for points of meaning, yes, but meanings that enable us to communicate within the ceaseless dizzying rush of the stream. Meanings whose primary values have to be the values of the stream itself – speed, flex, relentlessness. Just Do It.
Is contemporaneity itself the real value that Nike’s selling?
I don’t know what the Nike story is, exactly – but it says NOW so very well.
So what I do know is that I can tell a story with it.
“life suffocates within limits that are too close: it aspires in manifold ways to an impossible growth; it releases a steady flow of excess resources, possibly involving large squanderings of energy. The limit of growth being reached, life, without being in a closed container, at least enters into ebullition: without exploding, its extreme exuberance pours out in a movement always bordering on explosion.”
[Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share vol. 1, p.30]