Top of Mind: The Internet’s Threat to Branding

Open the pages of any newspaper or magazine these days and you will invariably find discussion of the digital revolution, whether the subject pertains to cyber-shopping, cyber-bidding, e-mail, database services or the never-ending procession of ever more sophisticated digital equipment.

In impact, one could compare it with the Industrial Revolution, but in this revolution marketing-related issues take center stage. New venture companies and their brands multiply at almost the speed of an atomic reaction. Products of any description are available to those who cyber-shop either directly or through Web conduits such as Yahoo, Amazon and AOL.

To those of us, steeped in the life-long habit of shopping in the brick-and-mortar environment, where thousands of products, all neatly arranged on shelves or in elaborate display arrangements, compete for our attention, shopping on the Internet is as perplexing as it is exciting.

The convenience of cyber-shopping is undermined by the lack of any physical contact with the products we were used to buying in stores. The packages that once beckoned for our visual attention no longer play a role in our product selection. Instead, we see on a small screen an alphabetical or categorical listing of the brands and products we purchase that assumes we know in advance what we want.

For those connected with brand and package design, the question becomes what significance these rapidly exploding developments will have on their trade. The question posed last year in a symposium in which I participated, “Package Design: Who Cares?” is becoming more and more eminent every day.

As a speaker, I valiantly defended the brick-and-mortar concept of shopping for goods, asking whether it was possible that “package-less” brands on the Internet might replace traditional shopping and thus eliminate the need for brand identity and package design.

In the months since then, I have modified my stand. I still believe shopping at supermarkets and other retail outlets is here to stay. But the Internet itself has changed in ways that, I now believe, will significantly affect the purpose and appearance of branding and packaging.

In talking with leaders in both the retail and the electronic industries, I was not surprised to see that all of them visualize a consistent and rapid move towards more and more Web shopping. What did surprise me is that they acknowledge the growing control of this medium not by the industry but by the consumer. Numerous companies, even leaders like Procter & Gamble and Mattel, are experimenting with personalizing products to suit individual customer tastes. Some companies are basing product development on polling consumers on their preferences in products, flavors, colors and other personal choices.

What is particularly interesting in this is how marketers of consumer products view the role of packaging. While packages in stores are not likely to veer dramatically from their current course, packaging for products sold via the Internet will experience online “customization” by consumers to fit their personal guidelines. Some designers are even jumping on the bandwagon by offering their services to personalize, for a fee, packages such as wine bottle labels.

In the early days of computer popularity, designers shuddered at the possibility that brand managers could participate in the design procedure by art directing the design process online, or even changing designs on computers in their own offices. Today, with the increasing demands by consumers to take control of what they purchase away from manufacturers and marketers to fit their own individual preferences, shifting control of brand and package design from designer to manufacturer and marketer may not be so far behind.

I hope brand designers recognize this threat to their creative leadership and develop guidelines that will identify the strength of their creative contributions and discourage the lure of determining brand design through “mouse control.” The temptation of customizing brands to suit individual quirks and preferences with a click of the mouse would surely mean the demise of effective branding.

Posted by on December 8, 2000