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Everybody's talking about branding these days, but the irony is that brand names themselves are becoming an endangered species.

I've lamented before about how the names of great old banks across the country are fast disappearing, as one national bank gobbles up a regional bank or a regional bank takes over a local bank. First, NationsBank Corp. buys Barnett Bank, a mainstay of Florida, and the Barnett name vanishes; then BankAmerica Corp. acquires NationsBank, and that venerable and proud name will no longer see the light of day.

Think of how confused the hapless Barnett customer must be. The customer is used to dealing with the local Barnett loan officer in his home town. Then when Charlotte-based NationsBank takes over, the loan decisions are made in North Carolina. Now the poor guy who wants a mortgage for a house in Jacksonville will have to wait until the powers-that-be in San Francisco, worldwide headquarters of Bank of America, give their collective nod.

And the same process is unhappily happening all over. In the incessant march toward global branding, there's just not enough room for some good and true brands that might not have equal appeal around the world. Only brands that touch a universal human need will make the cut. And how many brands can-or should-make that claim?

The sad part is that this "ruthless" pruning of brands might be good for the global companies marketing them, but the question remains whether it's best for local consumers who might not find their favorite products as prominently displayed.

Even giant global companies don't have the resources to push all the great brands that they've accumulated in mergers and acquisitions of other brands and companies over the years. At a relatively new drug company called Novartis Corp., formed from the merger of Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz, budgets get "stretched too thin" if marketers have to worry about promoting the hundreds of brands the merger brought together. Novartis people have to be "completely ruthless" in identifying those brands that have global potential, according to Chris King, director of international communications and PR at Novartis Consumer Health.

Those kinds of tough decisions mean that brands that fail to make the global cut "don't develop as quickly as they might have" on a national basis, conceded Tim Dewey, brand development director-Europe of United Distillers (now part of Diageo). "You can't compete on a global basis with a big portfolio of products," he contended.

Messrs. King and Dewey participated in a panel discussion of the Marketing 2020 Europe Conference in London last week, co-sponsored by Advertising Age International and the U.K. chapter of the International Advertising Association.

At another session, Julian Bond, managing director of Research International, wondered: "Are we fobbing off on consumers unwanted global brands as substitutes for innovation?" His point was that most recent new product introductions have been line extensions that add little volume and often cannibalize from the main brand.

Simon Anholt, who moderated one panel, thinks there eventually will be a backlash against all these homogeneous global brands that rob countries of their nationality. Simon, managing director of World Writers, says we have global marketing directors who worry about "commonality of needs," but do we have a global marketing consumer "with the same requirements? Possibly not."

Marketers of global brands "used to worry about logistics"-how to distribute products around the world.

"Now they're terribly obsessed with brands. They're being shoved into the 21st century paradigm. The 20th century brands were the shouting brands. They had it easy. The 21st century brands are listening brands, and sensitivity to culture is the new holy grail of global marketing," Simon fervently hopes.

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