Russell Davies is one of the godfathers of advertising and marketing blogging. Englishman Davies is a strategy planner who helped Honda gain a serious foothold in the European market before being poached by Nike to become its global strategy director.

Davies is regarded by his colleagues and peers as one of the industry’s pre-eminent thinkers. Unlike most seemingly untouchable big names, however, he comes across as a real human being. A slightly overweight and somewhat curmudgeonly bloke, with a love of the cholesterol-packed traditional English breakfast.

Recently Davies has been pondering the future of branding. “The idea of a brand,” he writes, “has been devalued by overuse, over-claim and over-thinking.” He’s never really been one for beating around the bush, which is what makes his blog such a must-read.

“There was a point in the eighties when branding was the future of business.” He points out that back then, “Companies realised you could stick brand value on their balance sheets, so they did.”

The rot started to set in, he argues, when, “Consultants realised they could charge fortunes for advice about brands. And the money people looked to the branding people for all the money-making ideas.”

The eighties brand gold rush gave rise to things like line extensions, expensive logos, vast corporate identity programs and, of course, the ubiquitous brand onion. For Davies, “Most of it was as intellectually rigorous and effective as Scientology: somewhere between a fake religion and a false science.”

This from the man who once drove global strategy for über-brand Nike! Talk about biting the hand that feeds.

He goes on to say that branding as science was, “Driven by bluster, energy and twisted statistics, kept afloat with hot air and sharp-suited conviction.” Davies cites his time spent working with Honda as the source of his growing dissatisfaction with branding.
“Honda had an inherent distrust of the word brand and refused to let us use it.” This, he writes, “may well be a broader Japanese instinct. The thought of branding as a trick to disguise a weak product.”

An interesting viewpoint for sure, although not one that everyone would agree with. But then that’s what’s so great about the blogosphere, people are prepared to share their thinking and ideas unreservedly. And criticism, no matter how harsh, is always welcomed.

Another marketing blogger who has also been questioning the future of branding is New York-based consultant, Ross Cidlowski. He wrote a terrific post a little while ago regarding a discussion in which he’d been involved about brands taking on a meaning of their own.

“Companies can push positioning on us about product attributes, or benefits,” says Cidlowski, “but ultimately the connection is made by consumers. Hence crappy products can survive and thrive and good ones often die.”

He kicked his post off with a comparison between the iPod and Nike’s yellow Livestrong bracelet. Now I don’t know about you, but other than the fact that they’re both made with plastic, I can’t see much of a link between the two. Ross Cidlowski can though.

For him, “Both products have infinite emotional connections heaped upon them by consumers. The iPod isnt necessarily the best music player, but consumers continue to buy it and make it the market leader.”

Similarly he says that the Livestrong bracelet stands for a lot more than just cancer support. “It’s a lifestyle, it’s a social movement and it’s a fashion statement.” Both Apple and Nike, argues Ross, “would be lying if this was their original intent.”

Interestingly, both Russell Davies and Ross Cidlowski are making the same point, but in very different ways. For Davies, many brands today have become saddled with mystique and jargon. For Cidlowski, the truly great brands are those that avoid mystique and jargon and let the consumer assign their own values to them.

“Really true meaning comes down to the consumer who engages the product,” says Cidlowski. “Advertising will never be able to create that type of connection, as much as it might push it upon us. It can highlight it and push awareness, as well as sell it to us, but we don’t connect to products through advertising.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Davies sums up the whole future of the branding issue with this: “Marketing, communications, branding, whatever you want to call it, still has a valid and interesting role to play in contemporary commerce and culture. Its just that weve undermined our own credibility with years of over-claim and over-thinking. We need to put a stop to dumb stunts like holding PR launches for new logos, and go back to the quiet and humble business of trying to add a little magic to great products and services.” You can’t argue with that.

If you come across any interesting blogs on your net travels, please feel free to pass the word on to Stan at: stanleejohnson@bigpond.com.