In which we learn, once again, that we live in a world of disposable brands.
A brand is a representation of one or several products that supposes the ability to garner loyalty. The Pepsi Generation was a bigger idea than water, CO2 and flavoring, and we could feel part of it with or without a bottle in our hands. Apple is the idea of simple, highly functional, beautifully designed technology products, as much something to believe in as a solution to a computing need. Even when the brand is the product benefit itself, once you buy in it can take a lot to move you.
For a long time, good brands were able to defend themselves by having defined both the product and the person who buys it. Sony’s Walkman was, in its time, as much a fashion accessory/must-have media device as the iPod is today. Similarly, you were a Coke person or a Pepsi person and pretenders to the cola kingdom like RC never really had a chance to break in. Only the rare leaps-and-bounds improvement could re-shape a market. The introduction of the Reach toothbrush both moved aside the commodity manufacturers of basic toothbrushes and initiated a war over toothbrush functionality that continues today.
When it comes to technology, brands have become quite ephemeral and market dominance one day implies nothing about next week. Atari was the first game console, but as soon as Nintendo was out and had better graphics the Atari was dead. Yahoo and Lycos developed the idea of Search, but Google made it better and its company name became the name of search itself. MySpace made the web personal – and really messy – until Facebook restored usability and accountability and helped us to define our online social lives. The Walkman died by trying too hard to defend itself, first as a mini-disk player and then trying to enforce its own digital format instead of mp3. It takes innovation, even for commodity products, to shift habits and almost nothing reaches a state of perfection; Heinz may forever be the market leader in ketchup, but Google will always need to watch it’s back.
Until about eight weeks ago, Words with Friends was tooling along with almost nine million daily active users playing it’s app-recasting of Scrabble. Then Draw Something came out with it’s app-recasting of Pictionary and in two months built up to over twelve million daily active users. It’s worth noting that the games Scrabble and Pictionary have our loyalty – we still clearly love them because we play the mobile variants – but these games are no longer delivered to us by their brands’ owners, replaced by Zynga and OMGPOP. There is only so much time in the day, so one game’s increase necessitates another’s decline. No surprise that master brand Zynga bought OMGPOP last week, an obvious effort to maintain social-game hegemony and calm it’s new investors.
There are, of course, little brands and Master Brands. The average consumer doesn’t know, or have any reason to care, that when they buy Dove soap they are buying a P&G product. P&G’s brand adds nothing to the essence of Dove. With the exception of Disney, which stands for family entertainment, no one chooses to go to a 20th Century Fox movie, they go to see X-Men (though they may be aware of X-Men as a Marvel brand, which represents a universe vastly more meaningful than a studio logo). The big master brands exist to give a name to supply chain economics, retail sales and distribution efficiency, and and marketing muscle. The studios concentrate financing and decision-making around specialized crafts and infrastructure. The question is whether there is any value in a master brand anymore. GM is stronger than ever after having jettisoned Oldsmobile and some others. They’d kept Olds on well after it was a meaningful brand by itself out of their own misplaced belief in the intrinsic value of a brand. Is it worth investing in master brands, or should we only manage product brands and evolve them closer to what matters to consumers?
Sometimes, we get to watch a master brand in the making. Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram also acknowledges that market leaders can fall without proactive defense. Facebook is arguably at its weakest on mobile devices so adding Instagram both enhances the service overall and defends it against an as-yet unknown mobile competitor. As a third-to-market social network, though, Facebook surely knows that in this world of ephemeral brand loyalty, the undisputed leader cannot rest or a Facebook can catch it.