In The Age of ‘E-biquity,’ Are Brands Irrelevant?

The golden era for brand marketers was the time of “Mad Men” ‑ when a snappy slogan or a cute commercial helped to differentiate brands, and build an emotional bond between consumers and their Lucky Strike cigarettes, Chevrolet cars, Hershey chocolate or Playtex bras. As the last season of “Mad Men” floats into the television ether, is the importance of brands also fading to black? After all, this is a digitized age, and back in Don Draper’s day, consumers were simpler and commerce was straightforward. Heck, even television was barely multi-channel.

Recently, Y&R’s Global Chief Client Officer Shelley Diamond set out to answer that question. Diamond grew up on Madison Avenue and on brand marketing, including spending 10 years with Ted Bates, the agency that invented the “USP” (Unique Selling Proposition). “A client asked me for my opinion: what is the role of ‘brand’ in e-commerce today? I was intrigued, so I spent weeks researching all the available data,” Diamond told me. “I reached out across the world to experts in e-commerce, shopper marketing, brand strategy and retail.”

Diamond’s starting point was a realization that E-commerce no longer stood for “electronic” commerce. “The ‘e’ is for ‘everywhere’ commerce,” Diamond explained. “Every moment is now a shopping moment. And, as my colleagues at Kantar Retail told me, while perhaps 10 percent of sales are attributed to online at best, digital influences 50 percent of purchases, and impacts 100 percent of retail in some way. For classically trained brand marketers, that’s a game-changer.”

Diamond has coined a term for this all-pervasive state. She calls it “E-biquity” – a constant and free-flowing digital link between consumers, brands and the marketplace. So do brands and brand marketing have a place in an “E-biquitous” world, where information is transparent and consumers do their own research? Haven’t brands become commoditized? Diamond turned to Michael Sussman, Y&R’s Director of Global Insights and the man in charge of BrandAsset® Valuator (BAV) ‑ the world’s largest model and database of brands.

At first glance, the latest research from BAV revealed that shoppers who skewed to online had weaker levels of loyalty for Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) brands. But when Sussman delved deeper, he found “the power of brand is even more pronounced among online shoppers” than those who bias towards shopping in store. Those brands that stood out with greater equity excelled on the measures of “Pricing Power,” “One I Prefer,” “Use Regularly,” and “Emotional Commitment.” The variance explained by Brand Strength was significantly greater amongst online shoppers than their brick and mortar counterparts. This finding was constant across multiple sectors, and the BAV analysis showed that “brand” has an even greater impact on the likelihood of “recommend to a friend” among online skewing shoppers.

The trick is that you need to connect with online shoppers (and shoppers generally) in the first place. In order to do so, brands must score highly on the BAV pillars of “Differentiation” and “Relevance,” which is quite different from the Mad Men era, where brands were built on the other two BAV pillars first – “Knowledge” and “Esteem.”

To be “different,” BAV shows the key drivers are attributes such as “social,” “progressive,” “innovative,” and “dynamic.” And to be a “relevant” brand, you must also embrace qualities such as “authentic,” “socially responsible,” and “reliable.” Think Google with a slice of Patagonia, or Amazon with an underpinning of Whole Foods.

When you think about it, it makes sense that brands still cut it today. Great brands are promises of performance and personality, and they communicate their reason for being instantly. At a time when we are overloaded with information, and over stimulated with a myriad of media choices, brands in an “E-biquitous” age provide a welcome shortcut for shoppers. While it’s harder to make a connection with customers, that makes the challenge that much more interesting for brand marketers.