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The Future of Brands is No Brands – Here’s why Laurence Van Elegem - September 6, 2017

Technology Tomato Sauce Can Final

The concept of brands will fade over time under the influence of bots, the sharing economy and the very recent ‛unbranding’ movement.


Brands are Big Business. A lot of cold hard cash is invested in keeping the names of Nike, Coca Cola, Louis Vuitton or Harley Davidson resonating in our heads. Successful brands make sure they embody as much a ‛lifestyle’ as they are representative of products and services. That’s the way they ease themselves into the minds and hearts of the consumer. But that’s about to change. There are several forces at work that will make the concept of a brand increasingly irrelevant and will have a huge impact on how we will market our companies, products and services.

Here’s what you need to know.

When bots obscure the interaction with consumers

Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon Alexa have one thing in common: they are standing between our brand and the consumer. They’re the new gatekeepers. Consumers are no longer looking at rows and rows of shiny brands in retail stores or scrolling through them on websites. They have a need, voice it and Google Assistant or any other bot will take care of it for them. It will be a lot harder to influence the consumer if only the bot gets to analyse all the ‘yummie’ data that would otherwise have gone to the client-company.  

It’s actually something very similar to the ‘dumb pipe’ syndrome in the telco sector, when network service providers merely transfer bytes between a device and the internet, while being ignorant about the applications their customer accesses. Simply put: the network provider knows much less about its customer than the applications the latter is using. Likewise, the bots will know and control the buying process much more than brands do. And if the pre-sales interactions with the brands are fading, will their relevance not fade with them?

But the biggest question for me is: will people still ask for brands, then? Will they ask “Alexa, get me some Nestle milk” or “Alexa, get me some milk?”.



Sharing is no longer caring … about brands

An electric drill is quite an investment for many of us. So is buying a car. Before you buy them, you’ll obviously do a lot of research. And brands know that, of course. So, they make sure that you will cross their paths several times when investigating online which product will suit you the best, at the best price and the highest quality.

But that ceases to matter when you loan that car or that drill on a collaborative platform. You just need ‛a’ vehicle to drive you from A to B. You just care about finding ‘something’ that can make holes in wooden boards. The nature of the relationship between user (not customer) and brand becomes very different. It’s very volatile. There’s no commitment, on either side. The users do not really care about the brand. They just want the ‘thing’ to ‘work’, that’s all.

How unbranding is setting the pace

Some companies have already understood the dynamics above and are introducing the concept of ‛unbranding’. Because when the ‛brand’ itself decreases in relevance, the only thing that’s left is the ‛naked’ product: stripped of all the marketing BS that’s sometimes used to cover up its flaws.

There are some great examples out there. There’s ‛Not Company‛ whom we visited on one of our most recent Innovation Tours to Silicon Valley who sell ‘Not Milk’ and ‘Not Mayo’: vegan products that are completely animal-free. An even more interesting example is the online convenience store ‛Brandless’, where everything is $3 and ‛unbranded’. For example, tomato sauce is just labelled ‛Tomato Sauce’. Gluten-free blueberry muffin mix is just ‛Gluten Free Blueberry Muffin Mix’.

Both ‛Not Company’ and ‛Brandless’ tell a story of transparency and sustainability. They cater to the ‘new’ type of consumer out there that’s tired of our marketing stories and just wants to buy a good product, not the lifestyle story behind that product. But I don’t believe it’s a pure coincidence that this ‛ unbranding’ trend is happening at the same time that the dynamics above are pushing towards the increased irrelevance of brands.

Paradigm shifts never happen alone. They happen when several (apparently) unrelated dynamics come together into one big shift. And I believe that this ‛ unbranding’ is part of that. It probably won’t happen overnight, but if there is any time to reassess how you are selling your brand, then this is it.

Passionate about branding and the way consumers shop? Join us on our ‛Future of Shopping Tour’ in October!

Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence Van Elegem

Laurence has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, communications and disruptive innovation. Passionately curious, she is fascinated by the impact of technology and science...