Photographs and Fizzy Drinks: Surviving Brand Genericide

A brand entering the public consciousness should be cause for celebration, but not anymore. Rather than congratulating itself for finding the holy grail of marketing it is now suggested that a brand should berate itself for creating something too well known. Can it be then that when talking about branding there is now such thing as too much exposure?

The BBC recently reported on the new accepted wisdom that a brand that becomes so associated with its core product (a physical item or a service rendered), to the point that it may even become absorbed into common language (i.e. Hoover, Frisbee et al), essentially leaves itself open to infinite replication via the claim that its concept has entered the public sphere and is no longer the property of the originator.

At this point it is said to have committed ‘genericide,’ a term that that at first hearing does have the ring of original thought about it. But under scrutiny it starts to feel more like the kind of catchy (read negative) jargon beloved of mainstream news media. Mid 20th Century marketing theory taught us the notion of sizzle-selling1 and now contemporary brand management has developed those ideas towards a modern sorcery of manipulated emotions. What problematises genericide as a theory is the huge paradox at the heart; the very thing a brand is striving is now the thing that may come to destroy it.

The creation of an effective brand is the control of many disparate creative elements in order to establish a strong singular image that is attractive to a consumer by being both easy to interpret and seeming to answer personal needs. This may sound complicated but actually the process is simple. Consider a photographic image: here is an object that has two states of being. The first is the analogue state, a basic result of a mechanical process. It has no message or meaning, it just 'is.' It is only when the photograph becomes used for a purpose that a second level is imposed by that eventual application, be it as newspaper reportage or an heirloom on a mantelpiece. Once surrounded by such context meaning is indelibly injected into the image2.

We can also apply this rationale to a brand. In its most simple form like a photograph it is also an image but, rather than a recording of a subject as a representation, it serves as a signifier of a subject, a means of identification. All objects become valuable by an importance that we bestow upon them3, whether that might be because they satisfy a basic biological requirement (e.g. sustenance or health) or a more emotional need such as nostalgia. It is this capacity to take on an identifiable narrative, or context, that makes an object an effective message carrier and renders them easy to construct a value system around4. All objects have therefore been manipulated by the branding process to become suppliers of gratification, no matter how grandiose the desire.

Brands that have been labelled as being in genericide should not be viewed as being in decline but rather as having transcended their origins to achieve a status akin to the mythological. When someone says 'Hoover' it is no longer to question strengths and weaknesses but simply used as a noun or verb. The brand thus becomes a Modern incarnation of a mythical object as it has an unshakable significance that extends far beyond its own boundaries.

On occasion it seems to be fashionable to view brands as malevolent forces that affect our personal liberties. This may even have been true at one time but post-Millennial developments in communication technology have caused a breakdown in this particular argument. The success of online brands has seen Google, Ebay, Amazon et al become part of our everyday life to the point that a brand can now be thought of as less of a simple accoutrement and more of a platform to support life choices5.

In that way branding has shaken off the old hypodermic type model of influence in favour of two-way dialogue. Arguably the consumer has always been able to engage with a brand via buying power but the difference is now the conversation is no longer through abstract monetary exchange but rather through communications broadcast to a world stage in real time. It is this factor that is crucial in keeping a brand from stagnating from success. Whatever the medium chosen, the desired outcome should be the same: mythological maintenance.

For a brand that has passed into the public consciousness the hard work has been done, critical now is to ensure that it doesn’t gather dust but rather stays in the forefront of the consumer's mind. A model on how this might work can be found in another successful international brand that 10 years ago was in danger of nullifying itself. Coca-Cola could have easily become a generic term for a fizzy non-alcoholic beverage but, as Vice President Joe Tripodi noted in a recent address to the company, the key to surviving was to acknowledge that modern marketing requires engagement with a consumer network that is 'wired, active and expecting a two-way conversation6.'

The key to survival then is not to sit in an ivory tower of over-confidence but rather to ensure that your core product is supported by quality communications derived from a real knowledge of your consumers. It is this that will ensure that a brands myth lives up to the audience’s expectations at all times.

Sources & Further Reading:

1.            Elmer Wheeler. Tested Sentences That Sell: How to Use Word Magic to Sell More and Work Less! (2008)

2.            Roland Barthes. Image, Music, Text. Fontana Press (1993)

3.            Susan Stewart. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Duke University Press (1993)

4.            Celia Lury. Consumer Culture. Rutgers University Press (2011)

5.            Celia Lury. Brands: The Logos Of The Global Economy. Routledge (2004)

6.   Joe Tripodi on the Changing World of Marketing. (2014)