Victor Liu

In a recent New Yorker article, James Surowiecki describes the “Twilight of the Brands” — the decline of an era where brands dominated consumer perception of products. The culprit, Surowiecki claims, is the Internet and its wealth of reviews and product data.  E-commerce sites, like Amazon, and review sites, like Engadget and CNET, have allowed previously unknown companies like Asus and Acer become major players in their industries.  Rather than relying on a well-known brand when buying a specific product, with a couple of clicks, you can compare similar products across multiple brands. For Surowiecki, the mystique of brands has been brought down to earth by readily accessible data that capture how good products actually are.

But is a brand really just the sum of its products?

Addressing the problem of the declining importance of brands, Richard Branson suggests that “meaningfulness” still plays a major role in determining whether customers care about brands.  Responding to Surowiecki, Don Peppers argues that the examples Surowiecki uses aren’t “real” brands.  Peppers claims that “authenticity” still matters to customers, and that belief in a company’s authenticity leads to customers who are willing to give the company a second chance when something goes wrong.

“Authenticity” and “meaningfulness,” however, are pretty fuzzy concepts; it seems like Branson and Peppers both want to recover the glamour and mystery of the brand, saving it from the mere facts of reviews and product data.

Surowiecki is right in saying that brands have been brought down to earth, but that does not mean that brands are now reduced to just their products and what people say about them.  A customer’s interaction with a brand isn’t just the end product; it includes the entire customer experience: from being welcomed by a sales associate at the door to the closed-loop feedback process.  Far from just the product, there are real and concrete moments of contact that your customers have with your business, which inform their feelings about your brand.

Even in the e-commerce space — where reviews are most transparently available — the experience of finding, purchasing, and even returning products, play a major part in brand perception and loyalty.  Andy Dunn, the CEO of Bonobos, analyzes the various challenges facing different types of e-commerce companies and, other than price, the recurring thread is the importance of customer experience as a whole — rather than just the product.  There’s already a massive company that focuses on product reviews and pricing, spanning a growing variety of consumer product categories: that company is Amazon.  Its almost complete domination of the low-cost, socially reviewed e-commerce space means that e-tailers have to find other ways to compete.  Delivering a great customer experience is a core part of that strategy.

One such e-tailer is ModCloth, an e-commerce company that sells third-party brands.  The curation and presentation of its products create a tailored environment centered around the customer.  While ModCloth sells products from other brands, its style and online environment feel unique and irresistible enough for its customers to feel like it is a distinct brand in itself.

For brick-and-mortar stores, customer experience is as important as ever.  One example, which became widely shared, involved a Tory Burch customer shopping for his wife.  The customer wrote an entire post on Medium, describing his positive experience with Tory Burch.  In the post, he doesn’t dwell much on the products themselves, but instead, describes his excellent in-store interaction with a sales associate.  The employee’s thoughtfulness, empowered by Tory Burch and its technology, assured a promoter and returning customer.

The age of the Internet has made it harder for most brands to hide behind a mystical aura.  But that doesn’t mean that only products matter.  In fact, as the difference between products narrows, the entire customer experience becomes an increasingly important distinguishing factor.  To give up on branding, and believe that only product matters, would be a grave mistake.

Photo credit: Nicholas Eckhart