Is Branding Dead? Our Brains Say No!


A recent post at ClickZ declares that branding is “Ineffective, Irrelevant, Irritating, and Impotent.” The author, Augustine Fou (I can’t help but point out “fou” is French for “crazy” or “madman” :)), starts by suggesting that “branding” (as a verb) implies an artificial construct, something other than the brand itself. Fou says that he himself isn’t influenced by branding messages:

The exact shade of red in Circuit City’s brand color scheme has little bearing on my willingness to shop there; the more modern-looking yellow-on-blue tag in Best Buy’s logo never got me to actually buy something from that store. In place of genuine innovation, good money and time are squandered on perfectly describing how the consumer should think, smell, taste, hear, touch, or feel about the brand. [From Clickz – Branding Today: Why It’s Ineffective, Irrelevant, Irritating, and Impotent by Augustine Fou.]

I suppose it’s pointless to respond to this kind of silliness, since the article is really linkbait much like the “SEO is Dead!” posts written to draw refutations (and, of course, links), from popular search bloggers. The truth is that we are ALL influenced by branding messages that hit the emotional part of our brain without being consciously processed. In Buyology, author Martin Lindstrom describes an experiment in which 600 women were shown a box in Tiffany blue – their measured heart rates jumped 20%. Other tests have shown that adding prominent “bargain” signs to regularly-priced products in stores can boost sales, even though rationalists would certainly deny they could be suckered into such a purchase.

Another telling experiment chronicled by Lindstrom was exposing smokers to images not of smokers, cigarette logos, or tobacco products, but merely of images like red Ferraris, NASCAR and Formula 1 paraphenalia in Marlboro red, etc. Amazingly, brain scans of these subjects showed the brain’s craving center lighting up to a GREATER degree than explicit cigarette and brand images. That’s right – activation levels were higher for the images associated with Marlboros (e.g., red Ferraris) than for an image of an actual pack of Marlboros.

Perhaps some people are indeed completely unaffected by brand colors and other branding messages. Maybe Fou is one of them. But the vast majority of consumers will, in fact, respond to established brand signatures like colors, sounds or music, etc.

One area where I agree with Fou is that branding is a lot more difficult in today’s digital world. Consumers have access to product and brand information in many different venues, many of them unofficial and user-created. Think how much money United has spent hammering us with endless versions of Rhapsody in Blue accompanied by heartwarming animations of weary travelers returning to home and children… and then estimate the damage caused by United Breaks Guitars, a four-minute video created by a disgruntled passenger. The guitar video, which pillories United’s baggage handling and portrays their customer service as uncaring and ineffective, has hit nearly five million views in its first month of existence.

But, just because communicating a brand message is more difficult these days doesn’t mean businesses should stop trying. What companies SHOULD do is work to ensure their branding messages are consistent with reality. In United’s case, there has been a real disconnect between the warm and fuzzy branding commercials and the realities of what their customers experience on a daily basis. The guitar video has accumulated tens of thousands of five-star ratings, which I would guess is due more to the number of viewers who can identify with the singer’s experience than to the production itself.

Branding isn’t dead… but, now more than ever, it needs to be authentic!

  1. Augustine Fou says

    Hi Roger, thanks for the thoughtful article and the mention. I agree that branding is definitely more difficult today than it was even half a decade ago, because consumers are empowered with so much information and with honest reviews by peers, which outweigh brand claims by advertisers.

    the point about color is that yes, certain colors evoke certain memories and there are well documented studies of what people think when they see certain colors, or even what moods they would feel. But too many brands are bright candy apple red, too many brands are cool, calm ocean blue, too many brands are granny smith apple green. So in aggregate, it has become an ocean from which the user still has to choose. The way most people deal with information overload is to ignore it completely, until such time they need to find something. Then they search.

    And with “digital”, consumers are exposed to TONS more brands and logos, possibly 10X the number that they were exposed to before when they only saw branding on packages on store shelves. These days, everywhere you look. You get hit with it.

    So I agree with all your points. What we need to solve together for the advertisers is how to shorten the distance between the inspiration and the purchase. That’s how we will drive ROI for our clients.

    – Augustine

  2. Carolin Dahlman says

    As long as you know, understand, love and are yourself as a brand – and not try to fake it as Foe is warning about – you will be able to create a brand that awaken people’s emotions. The problem with brands as in “logos” is when a creative designer skip the step where you ask about the Inner Brand (passion, pride, purpose, personality) and just design something cool… To make hearts connect you need to know the heart of your brand.
    /Carolin, love branding expert

  3. Roger Dooley says

    Thanks for stopping by and adding your thoughts, Augustin. Both you and Carolin emphasize the need for substance in branding, and I agree completely.

    Advertising-driven branding isn’t completely done for, though – check out this video that shows brand perceptions of tweens. I think it’s fair to say that much of their recognition of those brands is driven not by direct experience with the products but by advertising.


  4. Andy Church says

    Great reaction to an incomplete article. As you rightly point out, transparency and user-generated content are now key levers that impact brand at the cash register. Any CEO that does not embrace the reality that policies, people and practice are true drivers of brand should wake up and have their secretary visit and learn the basics of transparency. Okay, I was kidding about that link. A good place to start would be Cluetrain manifesto.

  5. Fred H Schlegel says

    I think the confusion for designers comes into play when the ‘rules’ built around a logo or image override the actual message that is trying to be conveyed. Brand has never been about the rules of good logo presentation, it has been about the feeling your product, company and communication that is received. But folks who think they are not reacting strongly to relatively consistent packaging and design concepts should really try to imagine a world where those clues do not exist. Life would be much slower, complicated and frustrating.

  6. Tom Kasperski says

    Augustine Fou confuses “branding” with marketing communications. Branding is nothing more than the experience with a brand, not the consumption of a brand’s marketing communications.

    Writing a full article based on the misunderstanding of a term, or best, narrow interpretation of the term, seems like a waste of key pecks.

  7. Russ Tate says

    This is indeed an interesting debate. However, I think part of the problem is that, in my opinion, there is a big difference between “branding” and “marketing.” They are not the same thing, yet they are often lumped together, as you have done here.

    In a nutshell, Branding builds awareness – your example, the blue Tiffany box raises heartbeats 20%. That’s great, but how many of them ran out and purchased something at Tiffany’s? Did anyone measure that? You can’t (unless you follow every single one of them or follow up – which, on a large scale would cost billions).

    Marketing, on the other hand, is giving people a messaging/information about a product or service that will affect their behavior and hopefully get them to make a purchase. You gave a perfect example of that right after the Tiffany example. “Adding prominent “bargain” signs to regularly-priced products in stores can boost sales…”

    This is marketing – affecting behavior at the point of purchase is a proven, viable and successful tactic. This is not branding (as it is currently practised). Branding is all about awareness (Tiffany’s blue) and awareness doesn’t necessarily sell more stuff. As Burger King if all the critically acclaimed, award winning Creepy King “branding” work has helped them gain on McDonald. The answer is no. In fact, they’ve fallen even further behind their arch rival. But I’ll bet they are selling a lot of $1.00 Whopper Juniors right now (marketing, not branding). Maybe they should do more marketing that affects behavior and get’s people to buy now (I’m hungry, what’ll I do?), instead of spraying shaving cream on sleeping college students, or showing off Spongebob’s square butt (branding/awareness). Just a thought.

  8. Ryan Janssen says


    Nice post. Obviously most extreme positions like this don’t hold up to much scrutiny. I did do a post last week though, that takes a historical look at how technology has affected our relationship with brands and I think it indicates that things are becoming increasingly difficult. “How to Train a 6 Year-Old to Hate Brands”:

  9. Katrina VanHuss says

    I am wondering if brand as a concept is being made an ineffectual tool, as so many practitioners use the concept to build a “brand” on a product or service that does not support the claims of the artificially created brand. “Savvy” was used in this article to imply “sophisticated” and perhaps “wise.” I think a better term would have been “exposed.” That the youngsters were aware of a brand doesn’t mean they were making a value judgement. A true savvy consumer knows that a brand is a creation of a marketing department, not necessarily a reflection of the product or service. As an industry, we are shooting outselves in the foot and destroying the credibility of our industry by not insisting that the brand we build is an accurate reflection of the product or service we represent. Fun topic.

  10. Andrae Denaro says

    Hi Roger,

    I totally agree with your post. NOt just a brand need to be authentic, it must be coherent.

    For this reason I’m probably the only man on the net who believe that adding a camera to the iPod was a mistake:

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Andrea, considering the maturity of the iPod brand and product, extending its functions now is perhaps less risky from a brand coherence standpoint. Just about every piece of portable electronics gear will probably support a camera before too long. Kind of like phones – you buy the phone for its communication ability, but you probably expect it to have a camera feature for those impulse shots. Then again, if the iPod starts resembling an electronic Swiss Army Knife, I agree that it starts to lose its key attribute: ease of use and simplicity.



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