What will happen to the concept of "the brand" as the N-Gen [Net Generation] becomes the dominant force in purchasing? Will brands still exist in an interactive world?
This is obviously an important issue to companies when you consider that literally trillions of dollars have been spent in establishing brands, and brands are central to the strategy, success and survival of many companies.
A trademark is something owned by a company. A brand is something that exists in the minds and actions of customers in the market. It is really a relationship between a customer and a product or firm.
CRAVING WHAT'S COOL
Youth, especially teens, have been very brand-conscious dating back to the boomers. In addition to wanting a good quality product, they want cool products, with cool names, used by cool friends and cool celebrities.
While the Net provides a powerful new medium for establishing and maintaining relationships, there is considerable evidence that the combination of the new generation with the new media may spell trouble for the brand-at least as we've known it.
Brands were established, in part, as a result of mass communications. Using the one-way broadcast and print media, marketers could convince people through relentless one-way communications to "Just do it!" If you said, "Things go better with Coke" enough times, you could establish the Coca-Cola brand in the market.
The key phrase here is "in the market." Customers come to trust a certain product, service or company. They identify themselves with it. They have a sense of belonging to something important when they make a purchase.
It can therefore be argued that in an interactive world with N-Gen customers, the brand will be harder to establish and may evaporate. . . .
ORTING THROUGH DATA
It is networked information that is bringing value and real benefits to the fore. Grocery shoppers using the online Peapod network can ask for all the products in a certain category, sorted by different criteria such as calorie count or nutritional value. The most frequently used sort criterion is cost followed by fat content. Determining the healthiest peanut butter takes seconds. And the mass marketing of Kraft would have little impact on the purchasing decision.
Good brands will correspond more closely to good products. A free market for value is enabled by unmediated access to information. In this environment, products that are undifferentiated in value quickly become commodities.
Even smarter software on the horizon-software agents-will extend this weakening of branding. Rather than trusting the brand, kids may begin to trust their agents.
AGENTS FOR CHANGE
Sometimes called softbots, knowbots or just "bots," agents are software that get to know the kids, their preferences and their sense of style. Kids and everyone in cyberspace are acquiring personal assistants. These tireless little workers surf the Net for you day and night looking for information you've requested, finding that perfect chocolate chip cookie, evaluating new movies based on your preferences and the opinions of others you trust, organizing your personalized daily newspaper, communicating for you, trying on different types of jeans and doing other jobs.
In many areas, trusting your agent will become synonymous with trusting your own experience. Conversely, we already have examples of brand development and customer loyalty arising at warp speed on the Net.
Conventional wisdom says that a brand can be established if "you have lots of money and lots of time." However, the experience with Netscape turns this thinking on its head. Netscape VP Kris Younger says, "We had no time and we had no money." Yet Netscape became an instant brand-largely through the molecular, word-of-mouth process of the Net.
Netscape's predecessor, Mosaic, was passed along from person to person on the Net, and when Mosaic became commercial-quality software, the branding was instant. Within 18 months there were 40 million users. According to Netscape cofounder Jim Clarke, "This is not only the fastest growth of a technology product ever but the fastest growth of any product and the fastest proliferation of a brand in history."
Yet the destruction of a brand on the Net can be equally dramatic. Younger says the overnight rise of many software products and companies is evidence of this.
The brand is the catch-22 of N-Gen culture. N-Geners identify and are loyal to brands, but they are building a culture that is antithetical to the mass communications important to brand establishment. The contradiction is formed in the gradual shift from broadcast dictatorship to interactive democracy.
LETTING OTHERS KNOW
When a teen-ager buys Gap jeans, the most important aspect of the purchasing decision is not necessarily how this benefits her directly but what others know about what she did.
One of the leading thinkers regarding the new media and marketing, Young & Rubicam's Mike Samet, believes such brands as The Gap will survive, but through different means. Mr. Samet explains how in this example: Brands have a "badge" that displays an instantly apparent "universal meaning." When a teen-age boy sees a picture of Michael Jordan wearing Nike sneakers, he believes that others will look at him the way they look at Michael Jordan.
"But how do we create the brand badges if we're having all these conversations in a one-to-one world?" Mr. Samet says, "If there are 600 million private conversations going on, where are the universal meanings and how do they get established? Television made it very easy to establish universal meaning. The Web makes it very difficult.
"Maybe all these kids will grow up today not needing universal meanings," says Mr. Samet. "Maybe they're going to be secure enough in their own world that universal meanings won't be significant to them."
He describes his 6-year-old son, who spends a fair amount of time on a computer and the Net. "He goes where he wants to go and there are no icons there to establish universal meaning. If companies don't have these universal icons, how can companies communicate with these kids?"
The brand appears important for now, as N-Geners still have the need to belong to the familiar and to be cool and there are ways to establish universal meanings for products. Further, cyberspace still lacks the superpowerful smart software agents required to bring value and services to the fore. But the axis of belonging is shifting. In marketing, interactivity equals increased power to the consumer to make informed choices and to buy products that deliver real benefits and value over those that do not.
The N-Gen will cause a change in thinking among marketers, away from focusing on brands and brand equity to thinking about relationships with customers.
Mr. Tapscott is chairman, Alliance for Converging Technologies, Toronto, and author of "The Digital Economy" and co-author of "Paradigm Shift," as well as other books. He invites discussion of the N-Gen and marketing at