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The Brand Bubble is Bursting

by Farrah Bostic on July 3, 2012

What is a brand?  Some people will tell you that a brand is what people think about a company and its products, or how people feel about it.  Some people will tell you that it’s a ‘story’ that people pick up through cues both ambient and explicit as they interact with this ephemeral thing called a brand.  Some people think it’s just the logo or design, the branding.

None of them are entirely wrong.  But the sad truth is that a brand, for the past 40 years or so, has been about what the marketers of the company and its products want people to think or feel or associate with them, whether this is authentic to the product or service, or not.  They have created a careful mythology in which The Brand trumps the product, trumps the service, even trumps the customer.  In which the cartoon below sounds a familiar refrain.

There are reasons why this notion developed – some good, some bad.  Concepts of ‘brand positioning’ became very important in the middle of the last century when we were all mucking about in the ‘swamp of sameness’ that parity products created.  Mature mass market capitalism called for some other way to sell products than actual product differentiation or customer benefit, because often, the products were the same, with the same benefits.  It was less about whether our detergent gets your whites whiter, than whether you believe that this is truer of our detergent than others.  Also, company and product names were familiar to us – we all grew up around Tide and Coca-Cola and Chevrolet. We didn’t need to be told about their products anymore, we just needed a reminder, a quick nudge.

Meanwhile, the creative revolution was coming up at about the same time that agency commissions were going down, which was actually good news for the industry – it meant really expensive, beautiful, celebrity-laden, location-shot TV spots, that simply deserved to be only in prime time television – and that meant you could still make a living in this business.

I can literally go on at length about why we created the Brand Bubble.  But like other bubbles, where the value of the underlying assets is wildly overestimated, and under-capitalized, the Brand Bubble is bursting before our eyes.

The constant discussion and debate about the following factors are where you can see the fissures forming in the Brand Bubble:

  • media fragmentation, of not having a captive audience making appointments to watch our ads
  • social media, of actually hearing what customers have to say
  • digital marketing, of not having complete control of a contained, static message in a system where measurement has been long established
  • co-creation or user-generated content, of having to share the brand with customers
  • mobile, of not being able to serve up epic production values
  • big data, of not knowing where the data is, how to get it out, and what it means if you could find it and use it
  • ROI, of having to be accountable to something other than your own work (think: setting KPIs after the creative is locked, or establishing successful media metrics based on ratings points/impressions)

The fear that underlines these new threats/challenges is present in every digital master class I teach or attend, in every debate about whether there is such a thing as a ‘digital planner’ or if digital is just a channel tactic, in every deck we write for a client in lieu of work we produce.

I submit that there are no longer 4Ps. There’s only one, and that’s Product.  Your product (or service) is inextricable from where you sell it, how you sell it, and for how much. But it’s more than that – today I can probably get your product from multiple places, for multiple prices, with or without a coupon or Groupon or discount code or customer loyalty program.  Maybe I can even get a similar product directly from one of your competitors, without the middle man.  Some of these companies’ customer service, marketing and product accessories/features are all rolled up into one product experience.  Their marketing can make it easier for a customer to own a product, not just easier for a company to sell a product.

In some regards, it’s a return to this:

Sunkist knew you’d heard of oranges. It wanted you to add a new behavior – to drink oranges. They’d send you a juicer if you sent them $.05, or you could get one with Sunkist oranges at the grocer. That juicer made it easier to buy more oranges, and to put them to good use.

So a ‘brand’ – if such a thing exists – is now not about what people think about you, or feel about you.  A Brand is that inflection point between your product or service and my experience of it, and the brand’s ‘positioning’ emanates from how I talk about that inflection point with others.



Today I was reminded of how true this has become. Virgin Atlantic, the airline founded by that Master of Brands, Sir Richard Branson, has been my preferred international carrier for several years.  When I was flying a lot to Europe and Asia for work, I had the luxury of company reimbursed business class, and Virgin’s Upper Class experience was difficult to rival.  It was luxurious without being stuffy, fun in spite of being paid for mainly by business travelers. And the service, from being picked up and dropped off by Virgin car service drivers, to the personal service you received when you arrived at Heathrow, to the truly excellent airport lounges, to the in-flight massages, was impeccably effortless, and always ‘on brand.’

I found this to be true, if to a lesser degree, in their Economy cabin as well. Flight attendants were always friendly but professional, phone representatives were cheerful and helpful and always resolved any issues without attitude or delay.  The food was better than on most airlines, the inflight entertainment system reliably good (from both a content and an usability perspective), and the planes flew on time.

The ‘Brand Halo’ of my Upper Class experiences had cast a warm glow on my Economy experience, but the experience itself was good.  Booking online was generally easy, and fares were always competitively priced; airport kiosks worked well and never caused issues; checking a bag was always handled efficiently. I could justify my decision to occasionally spend a little extra.

But I had a bad experience last month. First, the checkin kiosk at Heathrow misspelled my name, causing a delay as they figured out that the booking and my passport were right, but the kiosk was wrong.  Then we boarded the plane on time only to sit at the gate for almost 4 hours, without air conditioning or refrigeration.  We sweltered, the food spoiled. And when they’d finally fixed the problem, they locked the doors, announced there’d be no meal service, and took off, casually mentioning that they had considered canceling the flight but decided against.

While we waited, and when we landed, there were a few hundred people angrily tweeting and posting status updates on Facebook about the botched service.  Whoever manages @VirginAtlantic tweeted in response first, the same explanation the crew gave us, and then specifically to me:

@farrahbostic It would be a shame to judge us on this 1 experience if you’ve always enjoyed before. I hope you give us a 2nd chance soon ^G

Maybe I was jetlagged, exhausted, hot, and looking down the barrel of an hour long drive home, only to get up 3 hours later to go to JFK for another flight, one I was supposed to be able to get 7 hours sleep before taking, had our flight from Heathrow arrived on time.  But when I saw that tweet I was pretty furious – it was absolutely not an apology. Read one way, it seemed to suggest that the real shame would be if I was the kind of hard-ass to hold a grudge. And also, let’s be clear – these replies came at the start of the British business day – not in real time when people were complaining.  You could watch the complaining escalate in the face of silence.

Today I’ll head to the airport for another flight, and yes, it’s with Virgin.  But it’s already gone wrong.  The online check in system isn’t allowing me to check in, but there’s no explanation why.  When I called customer service I was told ‘others are able to check in’ and that I should just check back again later (something I’ve been doing since 10pm last night).  Finally I was told that if that wasn’t working there was nothing customer service could do to override the message and so I must arrive an hour earlier than everyone else so that I can try to get a seat that is neither in the middle, nor in the very back row.

I feel mistreated, inconvenienced, and neglected. I’m complaining on Twitter, and now I’m giving 1500 words to it, which I’ll share everywhere.  We’re at the inflection point: whatever the flight itself will be like, the service wrapper around that flight is broken, and all the hard work will be done by me, not the airline. The degree to which Virgin credibly stands for ‘a different kind of airline’ is now close to nil – never mind the red and purple suits, the music, the cheeky safety messages, or the decent curry.  That’s all window dressing.  The product itself – a nearly $1000 flight, delivered via a broken online experience, a bad previous flight experience, and a sub-par customer service experience – isn’t “playing back the Brand Architecture”.

The Bubble, in other words, has burst.


1 Rene July 12, 2012 at 11:47 pm

Loved your post. I’ve had some of the same experiences and feel the same way…the nail in the coffin though was hearing that they were offering the book “Fifty Shades of Grey” as an audio book. To me that just says that Virgin is no longer about leading, but about following, and doing it poorly as well. It is not up to their historical standards in any way.

2 David Marquardt July 8, 2012 at 1:49 pm

Love this post…couple of thoughts.

I agree with your “inflection” analysis (more clearly articulated in the comments than in the article IMHO). I, however, don’t think that’s really a change from how branding has always worked. It has always been about the product.

If product x promised y and didn’t deliver when I experience product x, I stop using it….and, I tell my friends it sucked. That process has always occurred.

What’s changed is the level of amplification. The Internet allows me to tell (potentially) everyone in the world it sucked, not just my immediate family/friends/town.

If anything I see your piece as just another reminder to be even more vigilant in what should have been happening all along… under-promising and over-delivering.


3 Farrah Bostic July 19, 2012 at 10:43 am

David, thanks for the comments – I agree. It’s how it’s always been, but I think we (I say we as a marketer & ad person) engaged in a combination of forgetting that, believing our own hype, and not caring or being paid to care about the product as much as our own products (branding & communications). And I also agree that the internet has amplified behavior that was always there. I think that between the internet and the economy we can’t expect to be able to ‘brandwash’ a mediocre product successfully anymore (and that we ever could was an anomaly).

Thanks again!

4 Tom Cunniff July 5, 2012 at 10:46 am

“A Brand is that inflection point between your product or service and my experience of it, and the brand’s ‘positioning’ emanates from how I talk about that inflection point with others.”

With respect, you’re confusing your individual experience with reality. I understand why. A lousy flight is more than enough to make anybody a little crazy :-)

But when you step back from your individual experience, a brand remains what it always has been: a promise.

Companies are imperfect, and customers are sometimes dissatisfied. This is not new. What *is* new is that customers can yell a little louder and it echoes longer.

Even so, your post radically overstates the power of word of mouth and radically understates the power of traditional media. 71% of tweets go unread; the remaining 29% quickly vanish in what Robert Scoble correctly calls “the river of noise”. By contrast, a memorable TV ad campaign resonates for years — sometimes decades.

None of this is to say that social media is unimportant, or that your comments about Virgin have no impact. It *is* important, and your experience and comments *do* matter. But it’s a very, very long leap from there to the conclusion that “the Brand Bubble is bursting”.

All the evidence suggests otherwise. While there have been many social media “crises”, to my knowledge there is not a single example a social media crisis that has destroyed or even permanently injured a brand. United continues to fly; McDonald’s continues to Big Macs; Domino’s continues to sell pizza.

Also, I’d encourage you not to underestimate the power of mass media. It remains indispensable for nearly all major marketers. TV is the only medium today that retains significant pricing power. Why? Don’t fall for the standard answers that it’s because “marketers are idiots” or because “marketers are afraid”. The real reason is that anyone who sells through mass retail must drive turns quickly or die trying. This requires mass impressions at scale — something that today only TV can drive efficiently.

As a result, the relationship between paid/owned/earned for most big brands is still heavily influenced by TV. Social media provides a valuable and visible feedback loop that enables marketers to see gaps in product and service delivery faster.

TL; DR – The Brand Bubble hasn’t burst, and the branding industry isn’t doomed. You just had a lousy flight and need a cold gin and tonic.

5 Farrah Bostic July 19, 2012 at 10:48 am

I’m mostly disinterested in ‘the power of word of mouth’ – i’m mainly interested in product experiences. i do agree that the brand is a promise; in this case, Virgin broke theirs (and it was more than one bad flight, to be fair – to me :) ).

I’d also ask you to check your definition of reality – what I experienced was reality. It might have been an isolated occurrence, it might have been an outlier – but it happened, and the way they handled it was not inconsistent with the way they’ve handled other blunders over the past year and change.

And again – with respect – I’d counter tl;dr to your comments here – but only because I wasn’t writing about social media or word of mouth. I was talking about a product experience that failed to live up to the brand promise – and that if we as an industry of marketers believe we can discount the product experience because we have access to ‘mass media’, then I believe we are very much mistaken.

But thanks for reading – even if the tl;dr comment suggests you didn’t, really – and commenting.

6 tom July 5, 2012 at 6:38 am


I enjoyed reading that thanks very much.

Couple of observations:

It seems to me you’re making a simple and pertinent point – that brands must continually fight for “loyalty” if they are to succeed. I think that’s what your Virgin example boils down to.

The rest of the post I found more confusing. Your definition of brand is rendered difficult by containing the word “inflection”. I’m not sure what an “inflection point” is and how it relates to buying a washing powder or a tin of beans or car?

I also wondered whether there was much value in arguing that there is only one “P” worth thinking about? I couldn’t figure out if this made the difficult art of growing brands and businesses more straightforward, or more complicated. Following your line of thinking it would be interesting to ask what might be the role of agencies?

I’m very interested in this sentence:

“But like other bubbles, where the value of the underlying assets is wildly overestimated, and under-capitalized, the Brand Bubble is bursting before our eyes.”

Could you possibly expand? I was interested to see a quote from a Coke exec (I forget who unfortunately) who said (and I paraphrase) “Would I rather have all our production facilities blow up, or have all our consumer’s memories of Coke be wiped out? I would lose the facilities”

Thanks again – great post

7 Farrah Bostic July 5, 2012 at 10:31 am

I’m only marginally interested in the question of ‘loyalty’ – mainly because I think that is a very brand-centric concept, rather than a customer-centric one. But I think you make a relevant point – I’m only going to repeatedly choose your products (which is what we call ‘loyalty’) if I feel you can be relied upon to be consistent, and consistently good, or at least consistently what I expect from you. My Virgin example is mainly to say, “they used to be great, but by not being great recently, they’ve ceased to be reliable to me, making me vary from my default choice (them) and feel forced to consider other options (BA, for example).”

When I say “inflection point” – I mean that turning point moment where I go from seeing your branding & communications to experiencing your product or service. If that moment is exceptional, or even good enough, that I would (a) choose your product/service again, and/or (b) refer others to you, then you have a successful product/service experience. So I’ve heard of Oxyclean, but when I actually make that initial purchase, if it really does get the wine stain out of my white trousers, then it’s just actually performed the miracle it promised, and I’ll buy it again, and I’ll tell others it works. If a tin of beans is consistently tasty, keeps well, and is priced right, I’ll make it a staple in my pantry, and mention it when telling others about my special recipe for beans & whatever.

The role of agencies, in my opinion, is the same as it probably ever was – to raise awareness of a brand’s products & services, to set expectations for what that experience will be, and for those really exceptional brands with really exceptional products (like Apple, or Nike or, many might still say, Virgin), it can also be reinforcing for those who’ve elected to be part of the tribe of people who prefer those companies’ products & services.

But I don’t think you can rely on sentiment, imagery, borrowed equity from celebrities, to create loyalty to a product or service, I don’t think it leads to real ‘engagement’ or real ‘participation’ or much more than an initial purchase on some products. At least, not for all brands. So we now, I believe, need product & service experience experts to help advise and guide companies who want to improve customer acquisition, customer retention, or customer referral. I simply don’t believe that is what agencies are built to do.

I think that Coke exec is a bit deluded. :) All the consumer’s memories of Coke have no business value if there’s no Coke to buy; similarly, as they learned with New Coke, if they were to significantly change the formula, they would essentially break the chain of reliability (we might call it brand trust), and cause otherwise ‘loyal’ customers to take their thirst and good memories elsewhere.

They say that “nothing kills a bad product faster than great advertising”. This is what happened between Chiat and Nissan back in the mid-90s – beautiful advertising drove foot traffic into dealerships, but mediocre cars stopped people actually purchasing one. Only when the cars got better did they see their star begin to really rise. Likewise, when Samsung wanted to be really competitive with Sony, they turned to quality control, innovation and design to save them, not advertising. I’m at a loss for a single instance of a terrific campaign transforming the business fortunes of a company with a crap product…

And thank you for the kind words and thoughtful questions/critique!

8 Fergie July 4, 2012 at 5:22 pm

“So because you had a bad flight the whole branding industry is doomed?”

That’s what I got out of this…

9 Sumeera July 4, 2012 at 8:57 am

Completely agree with all your fissure forming factors. I don’t think that brands have caught up at all. Only yesterday, Tide was running a ‘what does red, white and blue mean to you’ in Bryant Park. They were interviewing people and when I asked about their plans for an eco-friendly detergent, they couldn’t or rather wouldn’t answer in person or on twitter. One woman from Tide even said, that’s a different campaign. Had to remind her that’s not a campaign but rather a product and change in business. Didn’t get an answer to my tweet either.

Point is, we’re still seeing fluff campaigns around the same old products. Big brands have only begun to catch on to social media by creating a Facebook page or twitter handle (wohoo!) but Now What? They still don’t have the understanding or capacity to truly understand integrate with the times and their customers. At least yet. And as a customer, I already feel so disconnected from my childhood brands despite the tv ads or event marketing.

10 Terry July 4, 2012 at 6:54 am

So because you had a bad flight the whole branding industry is doomed?

11 Farrah Bostic July 4, 2012 at 7:31 am

Nope – the industry is doomed for many, many other reasons, but a bad flight reminded me of a few of them.

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