There was an article in last week’s New Yorker entitled “Twilight of the Brands,” and as you may have guessed, the author was hinting at the demise of brands and, in practice, the lessening importance of brands in today’s online-driven marketplace. It’s an interesting read, although I take exception with almost all of it.
I suppose I could do so on principle given my choice of profession, but my objections are based in realities this author simply chose to ignore. The barometer of the article was the brand Lululemon. I’m sure many of you are familiar with this company, as they produce upper-end workout gear and have become quite popular with both men and women. In case you haven’t been following their recent plight, however, let me catch you up: Lululemon had a meteoric rise in the marketplace, recording staggering growth and forcing all other brands to start producing their own versions of yoga pants and fashionable workout gear; Lululemon made yoga pants with fabric that was so thin that they became transparent; When complaints started mounting, rather than apologizing and moving on, the CEO suggested that the problem was that women were buying sizes that were too small for them. (I'll let you read between the lines there.)
Fast forward to now: Lululemon is in a financial freefall and their stranglehold on the market has vanished. It’s a PR debacle, mostly, but it’s also an issue of brand. I went into one of their stores yesterday and found a plain men’s t-shirt designed to keep you cool while you work out. Think Nike’s Dri-Fit, for the uninitiated. The shirt was $54. For me, and for most, that’s a steep price for a t-shirt, even if it wicks away moisture. But therein lies the point: This is one of the cheaper clothing items in the entire store, and people of all income levels were buying them.
Now, I’m sure there’s a difference between a Lululemon shirt and Nike or Under Armour’s comparable offering, but that difference is most likely not noticeable to the layperson. People had been sold on the brand, a cool, fresh company that only makes super comfortable workout gear and supports a healthy lifestyle. Branding is everything, and in today’s cluttered, hyperspeed world, it’s more important than ever.
The author of the article went on to point out the insurgence of online reviews, and how 80% of consumers will read these reviews before making a purchase. This is all true; I do it all the time. But it’s a generalization, and for the purposes of his article, a safe one. It’s missing the larger point. Online reviews are useful only when a brand hasn’t captured the attention of the consumer. Online reviews happen at the commodity level.
Want an example? When was the last time you went online and read a review of an Apple product? Almost everyone I know owns an iPad or an iMac or an iPhone – and many own all of the above. In every situation, Apple’s competitors have cheaper prices, sometimes by half. Some have bigger screens, some are more customizable, all try to have a cooler this or that. But who cares? We’re buying the brand. We trust Apple. Online reviews, in this case, are meaningless.
Take a look at Michael Jordan. The guy hasn’t played pro ball since 2003, and yet his shoes are the most popular basketball shoes in the world. And he’s re-releasing them! His brand is so authentic and so coveted that Nike doesn’t even have to make new styles. Last Friday, there were people camping overnight in frigid temperatures outside the local Foot Locker to get the re-release of the Air Jordan Retro VI shoe. Price? $179. For those of you who play basketball or have worn Jordans, you know that they can be clunky and a bit heavy. You know that there are many options out there that can give you a much lighter, more natural feel on the court. But who wants that? Take a look at any college team this weekend that’s sponsored by Nike; take a look at their shoes. 8 out of 10 will be in Jordans.
Of course, there are examples of this everywhere. What’s the thing you spend money on – more than you know you should – but you do it anyway? What do you buy irrespective of reviews? That’s branding. Exceptional, strategic branding overcomes price difference, overcomes product deficiencies, overcomes any number of things. Because after all, no product or service is perfect. In a world where online reviews seem to dominate decision making, where hundreds of competing products can be found with the click of a button, good branding will rise above it. So whatever’s next on your plate, make sure you’ve taken the time to build a powerful brand first. And leave the online reviews to everyone else.