Does Branding Need To Be Rebranded?

Recently, Sir James Dyson, the founder of the Dyson Company and the inventor of sleek household appliances, said that he doesn’t believe in branding. “We’re only as good as our latest product,” Dyson said. “I don’t believe in brand at all.”

Like a cat coughing up a hairball, Dyson’s comment caused a loud, involuntary response from the advertising world. In Ad Age, the wave of feedback from Dyson’s comments was completely dismissive. Some claimed that Dyson didn’t understand what branding was, while others said that it was a canny attempt to get more attention for his products. One commenter even suggested that Dyson’s anti-branding stance was an effort to curry favor with Upper East Side intellectuals. Apparently, New Yorkers in that part of the city buy a lot of vacuum cleaners.

A few days later, Forbes published an article that continued to criticize Dyson. This time, it accused the knighted entrepreneur of being confused about what branding actually was. The author lectured that a brand is “really communities of people who share approximately the same values and like to feel they belong together.” This was odd because Ad Age’s readers, presumably also experts on branding, had other definitions for the term, including that a brand was “promise + delivery.” Another said that brand simply meant “reputation.”



All of these recriminations must have been a shock to Dyson, who has been able to build a successful global company despite a lack of faith in branding. Instead, he had focused on creating elegant products and then selling them at a profit. Once in a while Dyson would also narrate a stylish, 30-second product demo that would appear on television.

Interestingly, James Dyson isn’t the only one now questioning the idea of branding. Ford, who has been stamping its blue logo into the backs of eyeballs for decades, recently launched a series of ads without any branding at all. According to Ford strategists, their new cars are now so good that they didn’t feel the need to brand as aggressively as they have in the past.

And then there’s Nike. Having relied for years on mass branding messages like “Just do it,” the company has now dramatically scaled back its investment in traditional branding. Nike has also reduced its emphasis on big brand athletes like Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and Lance Armstrong. Instead, the company has focused on creating software and gadgets like its new Fuel wristband that measures athletic output. Instead of marketing products, Nike is using products to market itself.

So are these all signs that traditional branding will eventually be obsolete, a relic of the 20th century? Perhaps the entire enterprise will turn out to have been an abstraction, a way of thinking about disparate activities that would have happened anyhow. Or perhaps, with consumers empowered by technology and overwhelmed by choice, branding doesn’t have the same effect on consumers that it used to.

For product-driven companies like Google, Facebook and Instagram, branding seems more and more beside the point. Venture capitalists are loath for their companies to make major investments in branding. They would prefer that a new consumer product build an audience naturally, in a way that is not influenced by outside forces. And so these companies focus on building great software and let the network effect take care of the rest.

But in more mature industries like consumer packaged goods and retail, traditional branding still appears to be vital. And then there are companies like Go Daddy and GEICO that are still built through the brute force of branding.

Ultimately, though, if more CEOs like James Dyson --  the end customers of branding, after all -- reject the product called branding, then marketers will need to change their language.

At that point branding itself will have been rebranded

8 comments about "Does Branding Need To Be Rebranded?".
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  1. Jim Kras from Whole Products Group, May 14, 2012 at 12:26 p.m.

    If Mr. Dyson didn't believe in branding then he would have called his products “vacuum cleaner” instead of the ego driven – Dyson brand. He obviously wanted to leave a mark with potential consumers with his “brand.” He believes in branding, the issue is whether he thinks he is above it. I would say look at his commercials starring himself – all branding, all the time. Enough said.

    The lesson learned is that almost all products (including Google which ran ads on the Super Bowl) still need a “push” at some point to increase relevancy. Lack of investment in branding often proves costly to brands long-term. Moreover, going into brand marketing thinking you can avoid the branding investment, is letting your bankers determine your brands growth trajectory versus utilizing your innovation & creativity as a marketer to tell your brand story in a way that differentiates you from the pack. History has proven that products, which tell their story effectively and brand themselves, tend to outgrow brands with less of a marketing investment.

  2. Marielle Hanke from Cloud Nine Media, May 14, 2012 at 2:22 p.m.

    Randall Rothenberg, IAB's president & CEO, defined a 'Brand' as 'the collection of assets and capabilities that allow one company to charge and to realize premium prices versus like competitors in the same category through time'. Branding as such is and will always be needed to ensure that customers are willing to pay the premium price. Up until today, the Internet has not been able to establish itself as a platform that helps brands to bring that message across. That's the only thing that has to change.

  3. Don Mitchell from Freelance Media Professional, May 14, 2012 at 3:25 p.m.

    As Mr. Kras correctly points out, Dyson is branding even as they are pushing their product line. GEICO is pushing its product lines even as it brands – particularly in the spots where they promote their various lines of insurance in addition to auto. If you are associating your company’s name with your product, you are branding.

  4. Mike Mcgrath from RealXstream PTY LTD, May 14, 2012 at 8:25 p.m.

    Dyson is saying "we are only as good as our last product" and in this sense he is right.
    The Dyson brand has been built up over decades of great product and word of mouth and is is already identified with great products so in his case maybe he doesn't need to believe in branding.
    It doesn't necessarily follow that branding is defunct.

    Like so many discussions on this topic, it all comes down to AG Lafley's "moments of truth".
    The first moment of truth being the moment when a consumer chooses your product off the shelf instead of a competitors, based on hte promises that you have made as a brand in your advertising.
    The second moment of truth being the moment they take said product home and use it. If it does not fulfill the promises made by the brand then ultimately the brand will fail.
    Focusing solely on the second moment of truth is all well and good for established brands like Dyson, but I doubt that such a strategy would work for a start-up competitor in the same industry. Such a competitor would need to fulfill the second moment of truth to be sure, but with no focus on the first moment of truth, why what reason would anyone have to try their products in the first place...?

  5. Matt Straz from Namely, May 14, 2012 at 9:49 p.m.

    I like Randall's description a lot. Thanks, Marielle.

  6. terri harmening from go east, May 15, 2012 at 10:39 a.m.

    Great article. But the fact is all the products/companies "represent or stand for" something. It is crazy to even consider that a product does not have a brand — it may not have a brand strategy, but it will always have a brand since the brand is defined by the consumer. Great products/innovations are point of entry. If you do not have a great product, eventually your brand will not be able to hold you up. Focusing only on innovative products leaves a company prey to becoming a commodity. Besides, a well done brand strategy brings focus and can guide the process of product development. In this day-and-age of savvy shoppers, you have to bring something more to the table than a great product. Sure, you can go to market without thinking about your brand strategy, but why miss out on leveraging all the intel that comes with developing the strategy?
    As far as Ford and Nike, these companies have done their branding well, and can ride the wave to a certain extent, for them branding is at a very different level and must be handled in a different way. It is like once someone becomes famous, they do not have to go into a long speech to explain who they are.

    This article is very practical. I like that. Branding has much theory and knowledge behind it but sometimes we get caught in our own philosophies to the point that brand strategies become impractical and too abstract to "pull down" to inform marketing strategies. Let's keep it real.

  7. Tim Orr from Barnett Orr Marketing Group, Inc., May 15, 2012 at 6:29 p.m.

    Emerson: "What you ARE shouts so loudly I cannot hear what you SAY." Working on a brand never works. Working to be the best you can be builds the strongest brand.

  8. David Burdon from Simply Clicks, May 18, 2012 at 6:13 p.m.

    I'm a great fan of Dyson (the products and the man) and a fan of branding.

    In my book a brand is a mark that guarantees performance and value. A good brand therefore typically carries a premium versus its same category competitors. A Dyson vacuum cleaner (or Hoover as we still call them in the UK) meets all the criteria of a positive brand.

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