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Brandless publishing- can you imagine it?

November 23, 2010

There’s been an interesting debate in the tobacco world recently as the UK government has sought to curb demand for cigarettes among the young by removing package brand identifiers. The government has concluded in the interests of public health that after removing advertising and sponsorship by tobacco companies the last remaining act is to remove the brands themselves. Brandless packaging, it would seem.  An interesting approach – and a timely one for publishers as they face the commoditisation of content themselves in the harsh, cruel and unforgiving world of the web.

As we have said before, talk to many publishers about their brand and they will shrug it off as an unnecessary and wasteful part of the marketing mix. They’d rather see money being spent on tangible sales and marketing initiatives rather than “touchy feely” things like brand. But the trouble is that many marketing initiatives are no longer working.

Trade sales are vulnerable. Web retail opens the door to draconian discount demands and price comparisons. Sales people, to get any deal, offer bigger discounts in the hope of volumes which (they pray) won’t end up back in the warehouse on sale or return. Direct marketing is ever more costly, requiring high priced items to leverage the ROI necessary to deliver profitability.

If there is no distinction between publisher brands, no niche, no value ethic then there is no customer choice. Price and base function become the choice mechanisms of consumers – their internal conjoint analysis mechanisms are unable to decide. Result: limited consumer selection and a focus on lowest price. Publishing companies will disappear as they are seen to offer little of relevance.

But as books become e-books and services move online, so the beauty of books is relegated to the handsome bookcases of private collectors. To quote King Crimson’s Adrian Belew, “what was deluxe becomes debris, I never questioned loyalty, but this dead end demolishes the dream of an open highway“. If the future of publishing brands is to gather dust in the valley of what might have been then publishers must act to preserve who they are, what they represent, what they provide. So a brand strategy is fundamental.

It’s interesting to hear some of the comments on the government’s brandless tobacco idea as they shed light on brand strategy for other industries. They include:

  • It will have no effect – tobacco is seen as illicit and therefore attractive
  • It would be better to have the cigarettes below the counter
  • Brandless products will create a counterfeiters paradise
  • It’s important to understand people’s motivations to smoke
  • Packaging is crucial to the consumer journey, loyalty and lifetime value
  • Colour is relevant to perception (the government is thinking of banning blue as a cigarette package choice as it is linked with health)
  • Packaging is crucial to brand distinction

Of course, A Brand Day Out is not commenting on the rights and wrongs of tobacco advertising. Instead, we are looking at why brand matters – and the arguments advanced in the points above highlight by their brevity why any company should ignore brand, brand values and brand touch points at its peril.

Publishers have relatively little time to consider this matter. Forces of commerce are moving violently and traditional models are falling away. A brandless strategy can only lead to commoditisation at best or company closure at worst.

So what’s your brand – and why does it matter?

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