Download Fickle

For every argument that brand value matters (or that brands even exist as logical constructs of any kind whatsoever), there's a simple, stunningly shocking riposte: people don't remember much, and what they do remember doesn’t necessarily affect their behaviors as consumers.

If they did: 

  • Crises would have lasting impact -- BP gas stations would be ghost towns, Mattel's toys would be gathering dust on store shelves, and Gilchrist & Soames toothpaste would be out of business.
  • Poor performance would crimp future sales -- Microsoft 7 would be met with cautious disregard, Comcast would have trouble selling new services, and United couldn’t check another bag.
  • We'd look at news events differently -- The valuations of tech start-up IPOs would suffer, more challenges would be thrown at the logic of the next big corporate merger, and we'd be more suspicious of promises for a new consumer product launch.

Nobody would waste another penny on hopes that the stock market will make them rich. Wacky exercise machines wouldn't sell on late night TV. Poor saps like yours truly would stop rooting for the Chicago Cubs. As citizens, we'd vote differently, since remembering what happened a year prior (or only a few months ago) would affect our decisions today more so than our imagined ideals or values. Cause and effect would factor more centrally to what we thought, as well.

Conversely, good news would be good business. Pepsi would sell more cola because it gave money away to good causes, and we'd buy more hamburgers at McDonald's because it was a sponsor of the Olympics. Dove soap would be more popular because of its widely recognized campaign to celebrate real women. Wal-Mart's customers would shop there more often because of the company's huge commitment to sourcing green, responsible product choices.

Oh, you think those good things work? They're vague, qualitative brand attributes usually discoverable only when you go looking for them (and ask leading questions to find them). There's no causal connection between good news and any long-term business metric that is objectively verifiable, other than that companies that consistently make money are recognized as companies that consistently make money. That's not branding, per se. It's reality.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not celebrating this fact. I believe that companies, politicians, and sports teams should get rewarded or penalized over time for how they operate. We should care and hold them more accountable, only we don't, and there's enough blame to go around for why:

  • Technology favors the moment -- Most of us live in an endless succession of discreet moments, defined by the immediate and brief actions our technology tools allow. Perhaps it's the nature of digital media experience but we don't live in this unbroken, continuous analog global community envisioned by Marshall McLuhan as much as we dip into it. Quick notes. Funny images or video. Vote. Click. Share. Then we move on, our decisions often made in the context of those moments.
  • Marketers rely on distraction, mostly -- The model for online brand interaction continues to be interaction with the creativity and the artifacts of marketing, especially when it comes to using social media. So while voting on a particular video or sales promotion might prompt action, it keeps consumers focused on the attributes of business operation that matter least/have little to no connection to reality, or to the future.
  • We pretty much care only about price -- There's a lot of talk and belief these days that the next generation of consumers are "socially conscious shoppers." I don't buy it, especially if they can be bought off with marketing campaigns that simply shift a small portion of cash from one symbolic gesture (ads) to another (philanthropic contributions, followed usually by ads). And complaining about something in an online chat isn't the same thing as making a choice at the register. It's just letting off steam, which is exactly how brands want it to be (see point above).

There are exceptions, of course, both from businesses that make money doing the right thing, and consumers who are willing to pay more for products that are responsibly manufactured (or penalize businesses that perform irresponsibly, even if it costs them more).

But the overall picture isn’t terribly encouraging. People are fickle, which keeps us imprisoned in an ongoing now that limits our ability to make, or stick with, reasoned decisions over time.

I think we, our technology, and our businesses are capable of better, only I'm already onto my next topic.


(Image credit: less parade, more action)

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