Not everyone is an artist. Not everyone is capable of creating a clearly defined brand. It is important to know your ability, remain unbiased, and stay in your lane. It is equally important to understand the value that art has in our industry.
Branding and marketing is art for commerce, not art for art sake. It must sell product but there is an art to it. We’ve all seen recent backlashes and numerous brands attempting to gain mass appeal through ambiguous lifestyle efforts and the mirror-of-me. While grasping for identity, style, and meaning, companies have to remember that the bottom line will disappear if the brand meaning isn’t consistent and defined. When brand development is done well, it is filled with style, poetry, meaning, and a clear and enduring perspective in culture. So why do so many brands lose their identity and cultural perspective immediately after they become successful? If it is an art, and if the initial success was created through the art of branding, why do so many companies hand over the reigns and treat branding as a disposable commodity cluttering up the profit margin?
“I see no reason why the artistic world can’t absolutely merge with Madison Avenue. Pop Art is a move in that direction. Why can’t we have advertisements with beautiful words and beautiful images?” – William S. Burroughs
Disregarding the brand meaning is one of the ways people attempt to hurl themselves across the revenue gap to become a billion dollar brand — but it doesn’t work for long. With the recent wave of retail fallout, the rise of online sales and the continued commoditization of some of the globe’s most trusted brands, it is more evident than ever that where your brand goes, your business will follow.
Creating a meaningful perspective for the brand is the single most important decision that a company makes. It will differentiate your company as long as you honor it. Conceptualizing and activating a brand’s meaning is more than a font and a visual treatment, it is the very foundation of what the brand is, how it expresses itself, and what it means in culture, to its customer base and to society as a whole. Over my career I’ve seen countless companies come and go, one thing that many of them have in common is that they have disappeared immediately after straying from their true identity to inflate their bottom line. Sometimes it is an accident, or a failure to understand the brand’s essence, but usually it is a calculated decision to pursue quicker gains over long-term growth. To sustain growth and endure the market your brand must mean more than many of the commoditized, undefined brands offering the same thing. If not, new companies will swoop in and replace you in the market.
The business of marketing and the art of branding have to be held equally, in harmony, to grow your business and reach your next benchmark. Being on both sides of the argument, as a creative director and an investor, I’ve learned that having the opportunity to be both the business and the creative decision maker doesn’t mean that you should be.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” –F. Scott Fitzgerald.
When number crunching eclipses your brand’s meaning, eventually it leads to the sort of fallout that experts call the “retail apocalypse.” Brands who value art for art’s sake, or marketing to impress marketers will find themselves in just as perilous of a position. But the retail apocalypse isn’t the result of indulgent marketing efforts, it is the result of the calculated decision to pursue billion dollar growth at the expense of brand meaning and sustainability.
Having a profitable company is the bottom line. The reality of business is that profit is the only thing that sustains business. Even your most trusted and “inspiring” brands have investors and are capitalistic ventures. There has to be a balance between capitalistic pursuits and authenticity in product and culture.
It is normal to pursue the highest profit for the cheapest investment — but how much does it profit a brand to max out their bottom line at the cost of their identity? The answer is nothing. It actually kills the brand and profits the investors, but only for a very short time. Once the brand’s identity and meaning is lost, it is nearly impossible to recover, especially after the business has been inflated to the point of having an overhead and profit margin that is nearly impossible to maintain. Once this type of structure takes over the brand, the identity is usually lost, and where your brand goes, your business will follow.
The result, on a large scale, is evident in the abandoned strip malls with empty stores and outdated shopping centers offering six free months of rent because they can’t hold tenants. Experts have been saying that there is going to be a mass over-saturation of retail and restaurants coming for 3+ years. In some parts of the country, we’ve seen it coming for longer. This large-scale shift is being primarily driven by the pump-and-dump strategies of hedge funds and venture capitalist groups.
The downhill domino effect starts when your north star becomes selling a product rather than marketing a brand. The moment the company becomes profitable on a noteworthy scale, the race to max out profits begins. This typically means selling the business or involving third party investors, managers, analysts, and financial strategists. Unfortunately, they usually don’t have any understanding of the brand, what it means, or what place it holds in the culture. They only understand the brand as a bottom line – a bottom line that they can inflate and manipulate. As a consumer, you can watch it happen in real time as the company’s focus shifts from “Why are we here?” to “How can we be more efficient?” to finally, “Let’s starts cutting expenses that we don’t understand.” The dominos start falling as attention and resources usually allocated to maintain the brand’s meaning are cut and funding is used elsewhere — now the company is identity-less and free-falling.
“The downhill domino effect starts when your north star becomes selling a product rather than marketing a brand.”
This is the bedrock of the pump-and-dump strategy that is sending so many reputable companies into a complete retail collapse. The majority of these stores are victims of over-commoditized expansions and a massive lack of differentiation and unique product offerings. Most importantly, they all lack a clearly defined brand meaning.
Building more locations, and becoming bigger isn’t enough anymore to dominate the category. The retail industry lost 29,700 jobs in the month of March, following a 30,900 loss in February, according to the Bureau of Labor Studies. This is one of the largest declines in the last ten years.
According to a recent piece in Business Insider, Hayley Peterson notes that, “More than 3,500 stores are expected to close in the next couple of months. Department stores like JCPenney, Macy’s, Sears, and Kmart are among the companies shutting down stores, along with middle-of-the-mall chains like Crocs, BCBG, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Guess.”
Much of this downfall has been blamed by the rise of online sales and shifting millennial demographics that value experience over objects, but the real story isn’t either of these things, they are just symptoms. The root cause is meaningless overblown brands believing that simply growing will fix their lack of differentiation and purpose. Commoditizing your company to be all things to all people to gain mass appeal will always be a strategic fallacy.
One of the great misconceptions of online marketing and sales is that it doesn’t play by the same rules as traditional marketing and sales — that’s not the case. If your brand is drowning in an over-saturated sea of digital sameness, Instagram, retail coupons, and email lists aren’t going to save you. You still have to clearly define yourself, independent of the platform. No amount of hashtagging or social activation will keep the next company from coming in and taking your spot. Likewise, if your brick-and-mortar business is clearly defined and differentiated, no commoditized online shop will be able to replace you.
The only way to combat the online climate, the pump-and-dump strategists, and the impending retail collapse is to create a radically clear brand meaning, with a sustainable structure that supports and reaffirms the brand’s identity. To become a billion dollar brand, you have to mean more than every commoditized competitor offering a similar thing, because your meaning within culture is your real brand equity, and that type of brand equity is non-transferable, theft resistant, and nearly impervious to competition. Clearly defining your brand will always be a better investment than bastardizing your brand and strip-mining your company to fabricate growth.