Television supplanted the general store and the amiable sales clerk who guided us to the products we needed. Marketers could communicate directly with customers through "high-personality" packaging. The brand had arrived.
Today's explosion of media alternatives will redefine the brand concept and transform the nature of consumption.
The history of brand advertising is largely about attaching meaning to products and adding identity to ownership. Centuries ago, we might have identified products with the craftsmen who made them; this knowledge would constitute part of the meaning behind the object. Today, capitalism has created conditions of production where little is known about how products are manufactured or who makes them, thereby creating a vacuum of meaning.
Brand advertising fills this vacuum and attaches meaning and cultural relevance to products, delivering its reassuring messages through traditional one-way media. At their best, branded products are value badges.
To date, traditional media have been used to reach the consumer and ensure that brand loyalty is maintained. However, the format through which brand messages are delivered is soon to change. This change will bring a new kind of consumption conversation and the brand reformation, ushering in the era of the Virtual Brand.
Traditional broadcast media are one-way: They speak to demographic groups without understanding the important personal factors of any one individual. New media are engineered as a two-way street to encourage the consumer to talk back to the brand and enable the media to record the reactions of the consumer for use in the advertiser's next fine-tuned message.
New media will be capable of understanding an individual's existing product context and social circumstances before a message is delivered. This advance knowledge will allow advertisers to customize messages to a specific consumer based on what he owns, likes and hopes to become.
Once the new media have learned what individual customers have and want in their own lives, advertisers can customize benefits for more persuasive personal selling and service messages. Therefore, the Virtual Brand will be like a chameleon, looking and acting differently to different people while satisfying, servicing and shaping individuals more intensively.
It will create brands through information relationships rather than by broadcasting value pronouncements. The Virtual Brand's customer information infrastructure will make brands become what they have always purported to be: an authentic barrier to competitive entry.
Recent value-added promotions such as those surrounding "The Lion King" demonstrate the untapped value in brands. Such promotions work because they create accompanying consumption experiences for popular brands.
Whether children are eating a "Lion King" candy bar or claiming action figures at Burger King, they are identifying with the "Lion King" brand, as created by the movie.
Broadcasting has succeeded in creating the foundation of promotional events by linking programming brands with tangible consumer products and pulling consumers into retail locations. Such cross-brand experiences will explode as new media's share of consumer expenditures increases, and consumers may satisfy their appetite for a different flavor of their favorite brand from the comfort of their own home.
Consumption becomes electronic and instantaneous. Children won't need to travel to a fast-food restaurant for a "Lion King" figurine. Instead, "Lion King" brand agents will offer individual combinations of "Lion King" product endorsements, educational applications and home shopping opportunities to customers depending on what they own, consume, prefer and signal.
"The Lion King" will personally charm its customers in as many lucrative ways as possible but never in exactly the same way. Everyone gets a personal performance.
In this hyper-customized world, the inter-relationship of advertising and programming increases because customer tastes and preferences are known in advance. Programming and advertising become interchangeable, as consumers are living inside a perpetual marketing event.
The brand information structure becomes a service center and marketplace, answering product queries and referring individuals to other appropriate brands. Cross-brand alliances are built where one brand of stature can refer a customer with a need to another compatible brand.
Like a good concierge, the brand will know its customer, will know its referral and will reap benefits from both for the introduction. In this context, multiproduct companies reap some of the richest rewards.
New media will offer new, exciting and unparalled benefits to both consumers and advertisers. For consumers this means Virtual Brand ensembles that match: brands and products that work together more efficiently and synergistically to reflect personal needs and aspirations. For advertisers, brand asset valuation and development become critical as information relationships become the post-modern currency of brand equity.
Andrew Susman is an associate in new-business development at Chapman Direct, New York, a unit of Young & Rubicam. He's also involved with VisionMedia, Young & Rubicam's interactive media committee.