Other than tourism and some niche products, geography has not played an important role in much branding. We've been told and repeatedly reminded that we live in a global economy, in which the production of goods and services migrate to the best (i.e. cheapest) places from which they can be produced, so location or point-of-origin really don't matter.
Branding has become something we attach onto things, sometimes literally no more than a wrapper or rubber stamp. We saw this with America's toy safety crisis over the holidays last year. You can see it when you walk down the aisles at an super-store and search for the "made in..." mouseprint on the labels.
Even if advocated internally within companies as a consumer experience tactic, brands are still, at best, mostly conceits of how businesses market themselves, and not what they do, or where they do it.
I'm a strong believer that context is far more important to brand creation than any invented quality, just as business operations are far more crucial to branding than any communications conceit. So I wonder whether today's world might be forcing a change that elevates the importance of place/where made to a primary brand attribute.
Here's what I think the influences on that move might be:
- Energy: The cost of shipping containers of merchandise manufactured in far-away lands has quadrupled in recent memory, and the rise is due mostly to energy costs. Most alternative, renewable energy production is very, very local
- Environment: The old economic model treated the environment as an externality to business, as if it were an endless ocean upon which all ships sailed, but none cared for. That's not the case anymore
- Community: Social media makes it possible for kids on opposite sides of the world to compare tattoos, but it also enables local communities to rediscover one another and their shared interests/concerns
- Jobs: It's hard for a global business to claim it cares about a local community when it can only offer charitable giving to compensate people for the loss of jobs (direct and supplier), infrastructure, etc.
So while we're seeing most news coverage focused on the economic implications of a struggling world economy, I wonder whether another outcome might be a change in the way we approach branding.
Just as the structure of businesses has to change, and people are more aware of that reality, might not the branding imperative shift from making external associations to doing a better job of communicating the internal truths of companies?
Imagine choosing between two pairs of shoes (or tubes of toothpaste, or big screen TVs);
- One brand does all of the image, sponsorship, and charitable communications it's supposed to do
- The other is a locally-based company that strives for environmental efficiency, employs your brother-in-law, and is building a greenway trail so its employees can ride to work on it
I suspect business is going to go local, and branding may very well follow. Could adapting to this reality give brands an excuse to get more relevant, authentic, and sustainable?
Maybe it's time to bring brands home?