WPP Some Brands are Born to Die

Some brands are born to die

The growing phenomenon of short-term brands

Traditionally, brands that last are celebrated. We admire their longevity and durability, believing that if a brand has endured, it’s because it possesses something of timeless, intrinsic value. By implication, a brand that is short-lived is dismissed as a fad, a flash-in-the-pan, and deemed inferior, because it didn’t have what it takes to last. 

But times have changed. With shifting consumer tastes, new technologies, lower start-up costs, and the sheer acceleration of everything digital, it now makes perfect sense – both commercially and culturally – to create and kill brands at a previously unseen pace. A couple of long-held truisms have been overturned: firstly, that creating brands is expensive and ought to be done selectively; secondly that you should only kill a brand off if it has failed.

This means that brand creation increasingly mimics innovation. As with innovation, there are studios dedicated to delivering at scale – new brands will be created not only for giant leaps, but for more incremental gains (just as the humble SKU extension is created in 2019). Creativity, speed, and low-cost, data-driven solutions define the process and, as with innovation, failure will be viewed as unfortunate, rather than calamitous.

Here are four reasons why some brands are born to die:

The rise and rise of marketplaces

Between 2017 and 2018, 96% of Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) growth took place outside supermarkets and hypermarkets (Kantar Worldpanel). No prizes for guessing that online is where much of that growth took place. This year, Alibaba has said it wants to double the number of global brands on its site, and here, as in many other fields, China’s present is indicative of the West’s future. As marketplaces are ever hungrier for new brands and enable more profitable targeting of audiences previously regarded as niche, the barriers to creating new brands will lower and incentives will rise. The fine line between sellers and brands means that “one-man brands” are on the up.

The allure of the temporary

Arguably, the here-today-gone-tomorrow concept has never had more cultural relevance. Residual expressions of this are the explosion of pop-ups and “drops” in fashion. Today, “temporary” usually implies limited edition, but the definition will broaden. Some brands will recur, targeting an annual holiday, such as Chinese New Year, or an event, such as the Super Bowl. Some will be purely event-based, a new fashion brand by an artist bundled with an album purchase, for example. Others will be one-offs used to bake scarcity into the brand – like vintners who produce an entirely new “brand” during exceptional harvests.

Brands as experiments versus profit centres

As design thinking has moved from a fringe problem-solving technique to an (almost painfully) commonplace approach, a startling thing has happened: people have started to pay good money just to discover things. Not through traditional insight work, as it were, but by potentially expensive projects, whose yield is not profit but validated learning. New brands will serve as ways to harvest data, get insight into new audiences, and even benchmark cultural relevance. These brands’ successes are not based on revenue, but on data acquisition and knowledge.

Brands as diffuse platforms, not producers of identikit

While personalisation has been discussed for eons, we rarely see it. What we see is mass customisation (have it in your favourite colour, as long as it’s yellow or blue, rather than create something in a colour that more accurately reflects your tastes). This is going to change, driven by several factors, not least of which is 3-D printing. In this world, the idea of a single hero product that appeals to billions of people – each of whom has highly attuned individual tastes – feels difficult for a single brand to do with any credibility. It will be easier to target subcultures (be that Afro-punk skaters or Kylie fans) with a portfolio product than via a single brand.

Brand building is not dying; it is evolving. We are starting to see two viable paths for brand creation where, traditionally, there has been only one. Building large, longer-term brands, which use both platforms and sheer popularity to scale and to endure, will continue to be a model, but a new breed of brands now exists alongside. The value of this new breed of brands is in their fleetingness (which makes costs more manageable) and in the specificity of their objectives (which extends key performance indicators beyond revenue). They may be conceived solely to collect data from a hard-to-reach tribe, to build short-term engagement, or to size an audience. These brands will be born to die – but, on dying, would have succeeded nonetheless.

Conrad Persons

Managing Partner, Kantar

published on

27 November 2019



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