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Friday, February 27, 2004
A few weeks ago, we noticed that MDN Studio had countered our half-hearted response to Ashley B's [grid::brand] project. We said that brands were dead, or perhaps dying. It was, admittedly, a provocation. The folks at MDN Studio didn't agree. We followed up with an email, but I think it must have been lost in the ether, so here's our more considered response to the charge that we confuse brands with branding.

Are brands dead?
The observation that brands are dead is, admittedly, a deliberately provocative one. Brands appear as a kind of cipher, a veil that is drawn across an object, altering its essential characteristics to such an extent that we can no longer recognise what those essential characteristics once were.

Perhaps this isn't a bad thing. But from a consumer's point of view, the boundary between object and image are blurred. MDNís description of how 'groups of brands [are] helping to define the individual' doesn't seem a very welcome state of affairs. Although human beings have always used the production and accumulation of objects as a means of projecting their identity - as any anthropologist will concur - dismissing the importance of individual objects in favour of a series of brands isn't about expression, it's about marketing, and finding new ways to sell things to people.

The reference to the motor industry didnít just mean the way in which ad agencies, designers and marketing departments collude to sell a product after it's been designed and consumed, but the way in which a car is a carefully composed collection of 'trigger points', devices for evoking memories and associations. I spend a fair amount of time reading and writing about cars and car design, and I see the extent to which fundamental design decisions are made at a very early stage in the game in order to steer the brand in new directions; it's like steering an oil tanker as you have to think many miles ahead of where you want to turn.

As MDN observes, brands are about loyalty, a means of ensuring repeat business. A brand has to evolve, but it has to evolve with its consumers or else it risks alienating them (as BMW is alleged to have done with its new design direction under Chris Bangle). This need for customer loyalty has, to a large extent, grown out of increased reliability and the end of 'planned obsolesence' in product design. You don't need to replace your car or washing machine every year, and marketing is no longer geared towards these artificial product cycles. Branding, on the other hand, is free from this cyclical business model. It's about building a relationship, a relationship where the brand holds all the cards.

As MDN says, we all have 'brand databases in our heads,' but how much of that information is based on actual hands-on experience with each product? A tiny percentage, I'd imagine - we know objects almost exclusively through their brands, their ciphers. And as we no longer need to have a physically familiarity with an object to know it, the brand could truly be said to be a distraction, a cipher - a non-existent thing.

So in conclusion, I think it's semantics to distinguish between 'brands' and 'branding'. The latter is simply the means by which the former comes into being. Although MDN is right to say that for now, brands aren't dead, they're surely doomed. As a consumer, I feel under assault from brands and branding and resent the increasing signal to noise ratio that swarms around objects, even around objects we have no desire to buy or use. Surely I can't be alone?