Brands as Differentiators
The first role of brands in human history was to denote ownership (i.e., livestock marked with a branding iron) and to signal origin and quality of products made by respected artisans (e.g., bread, pottery or leather products). As such, the role of brands was to help us differentiate between otherwise similar products.
Brands as Decision Aids
More recently, as industrialization and globalization added a wide range of competing options for virtually every product and service, the role of brands evolved to help us make purchase decisions. Brand owners and marketers worked hard to identify, and consistently communicate, the optimal emotional benefits and “personality” for their brands to help customers and prospects choose their brand over competing options. For example, people to whom confident self-actualization appealed tended to choose Nike over other brands of sports shoes and apparel, while business executives felt safe going with IBM over competitors. This role for brands marked the height of unidirectional marketing communications from brand owners and marketers to their target customers and prospects.
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Brands as Experiences
As the internet and related communications technologies drove digital communications forward and gave customers the ability publicly and widely to share their views on brands with other customers and prospects of those brands, the primary role of brands evolved again. With the growing democratization of worldwide communications, successful brands now engaged with customers and prospects across time and space through an ever-growing set of engagement channels. Brand owners and marketers emphasized brand-centric experiences, and business practitioners spoke of the “experience economy” as the new world in which we all now lived.
Brands as Purposeful
Next, as millennials started to come of age, brands were challenged again to grow and expand. This time, the push from this new generation of customers was for brands that went beyond their nominal category and showed they had a bigger, more meaningful purpose. Brands that appeal to these next-gen customers—including all generations since millennials—are ones that take a stand on important socio-political, health and environmental issues. But, crucially, they don’t just talk the talk, they actually walk it. Proudly. Confidently. Publicly. According to multiple studies, well more than a simple majority of consumers now want and expect brands to publicly commit to and report on “citizenship issues”. So, brand success, as a result, expanded to include brand purpose, transparency and authenticity. Brands like REI and Tom’s Shoes were already there, while many large and more mainstream brands took note and evolved their brands, accordingly. Now Starbucks is happy to tell you about how, where and at what environmental impact their coffee beans got to your store. And hotel brands, like certain Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, are happy to list all of their sustainability programs on their site and in their rooms and restaurants.
Brands as Self-Expressions
Today, it seems, we stand at the forefront of yet a new expansion of the role brands play in our lives. It is becoming increasingly clear that people are using the brands they purchase/use to define themselves. In other words, they are identifying with and signaling (to themselves, others and society at large) their own beliefs, perceptions and positions through the brands they have chosen to align with. One could just see this development as an inevitable, logical extension (conclusion?) of demanding brands be purposeful. Either way, now that brands have arrived at the highest level of Maslow’s needs hierarchy. It should be interesting to see if and how the role of brands evolves from here.