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Microbrands: Think Small

Image © Garrett Rowland

Over the past 50 years, the practice of branding has undergone profound changes. From a contemporary vantage point, it’s difficult to imagine what corporate branding entailed in the mid-1960s, when the concept of branding wasn’t nearly as developed as it is today. But appreciating how branding has evolved and understanding the factors that have evolved the practice can help designers better understand the challenges global brands currently face.

In 1965, the Fortune 100 was dominated by industrial brands: 79 of them manufactured steel, chemicals, airplanes, heavy equipment, automobiles, or oil and gas. There were no retail brands; and while 15 brands on the list marketed directly to consumers, most, like Nabisco and Kraft, produced commodity products.

Today, the Fortune 100 landscape indicates a shift towards a consumer-focused and technology-enabled service economy. Of the 2015 Fortune 100 companies, 36 are retail, consumer products, or technology brands (or, in the case of Apple, all three at once). Insurance and financial services companies have 18 spots on the list—in 1965 there were none. And healthcare and pharmaceuticals brands now take 13 slots, which is not surprising given the increased focus on longevity and the aging of the baby boomers.

This shift from industry to service coincided with significant advancements in the media landscape, changes in shopping habits, and evolved marketing and advertising strategies. So let’s take a closer look at these changes and how they’ve affected branding.


In 1965, there was a grand total of three broadcast television networks. NBC broadcast almost all of its primetime shows in color, while CBS only broadcast half of their shows in color. (ABC brought up the rear with 33 percent.) Not that it mattered much: in 1965, only 9.7 percent of households even owned a color TV. People gathered together in groups to watch whatever was on with little choice in the matter.

Today, people experience thousands of cable stations and on-demand video sources in a much more personal way. The landscape of digital sources is vast. YouTube alone has more than 1 billion users who watch hundreds of millions of hours of video each day. There are social-media giants like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and alternative-streaming sources like Crackle, Netflix, Hulu, HBO GO, Meerkat, Periscope, and Vine. New-journalism sites like Vice, Huffington Post, Jezebel, and Politico use video to communicate the stories that were once confined to the nightly news.


How did people used to shop?

In 1965, the Sears catalog was two inches thick and sold everything under the sun. You could buy anything from a speedboat to a birdhouse, and the products were mass-produced on an industrial scale. Now we have Etsy, which also sells everything under the sun. But unlike Sears, Etsy is not a single source but a complex ecosystem where thousands of individuals sell unique specialty products, often handmade and one-of-a-kind.

Marketing and advertising

In 1965, advertisers relied on traditional demographics. Statistics like gender and household income governed the direction of ad campaigns that were delivered via a handful of channels: print, radio, and those three TV stations. The lack of metadata—specific, targeted metrics available through technology today—helped perpetuate inaccurate consumer stereotypes. For example, despite the prevalence of apron-wearing housewives in 1960s advertising, not every woman over thirty craved a gigantic new refrigerator. But companies believed that casting a wide net would catch all kinds of potential customers.

Today, companies have a much more nuanced understanding of who their customers are, and they freely engage with their target audiences in two-way conversations. They are creating communities of like-minded fans, regardless of demographics. On a recent visit to Anthropologie, I shopped with people who all shared a common fashion point of view, despite hailing from different ethnic and socioeconomic groups and ranging in age from teenagers to 60-somethings.

What this means for brands

When you look at the ways society has changed over the past 50 years, it becomes clear that we have moved from a “monolithic” culture—one in which everything was mass-produced from a single source on an industrial scale—to a “mosaic” culture, where infinite choices, socioeconomic and racial diversity, globalization, and 24/7 on-demand access have broken brands into ever-smaller entities.

If we want to keep pace with these changes, our design thinking around branding needs to shift. Megabrands that try to be all things to all people are relics of the past. Modern consumers prefer “microbrands” that offer a clear point of view, targeted communication strategies, and opportunities for customization.

Think of it this way: We already have microbrews, microfinancing, and micro-economies. So why not microbrands!

We’ve already seen companies like Apple embrace this approach to brand management. There’s nothing “micro” about Apple—the company reported $182 billion in revenues in 2014. But when you break down Apple’s business model, you see that it is a sort of mega-microbrand: the company sells a small number of products unified by the brand’s emphasis on lifestyle, a highly articulated visual language, and a very focused approach to messaging that doesn’t leave anyone guessing about what Apple stands for. Plus, each of their products offers an entry point into an entire ecosystem of micro-content that’s as individualized as each user.

In the old days, branding was approached with institutional-like rigor, and designers created fixed applications that were rigidly consistent—the rubber stamp approach. Today, brands are living, breathing, multi-faceted organisms that, like people, need air and space and the ability to grow and change over time. Now, everyone is a brand manager, advertiser, and content provider; more than ever, we are engaging with brands on our own terms. Designers need to provide the underlying structure that can allow brands to evolve as their customers want them to. What if my favorite brand could alter its tone of voice and messaging to me as I age? What if my brand could interpret for me?

Perhaps what’s required is a new definition of “brand culture.” Moving forward, companies will need to embrace the concept of microbrands to target an expanding world of niche communities. Brands will need to become even more specific, customized, and targeted if they want to survive. It’s not easy to stand tall within a crowded brand landscape, and as constant streams of information threaten to overwhelm consumers, brands will need to become more adept at cutting through the noise rather than contributing to it. To reach critical mass, microbrands will need to group together, in like-minded ways—they might even cultivate and grow new social communities based on common interests and values as opposed to geography.

It all starts with creating the right environment for engagement. In order to do that, brands must deliver robust experiences that provide a platform for individual expression and dialogue. Digital technology may supplant many facets of the brand experience, but loyalty to brands, as with people, is built through personal connections. And you can’t have face-to-face without a place. Space matters! Spaces help people forge meaningful connections by merging physical and content-rich experiences. Brands will need to create live and participatory experiences—rituals to prolong and deepen the relationship, places for brand fans to immerse themselves and meet each other, and key moments that are perishable—because once it happens, it’s gone forever.

Understanding the future of the brand landscape requires an understanding of our multifaceted, multicultural, and multidimensional world. Microbrands will help to make that easier.

Beth Novitsky is a design director and senior associate in Gensler's New York office, and a leader of the firm's global Brand Design practice. She believes that a strong brand story can be a powerful asset, whether in the context of a retail store or a corporate environment. She works with companies around the world to develop programs involving brand strategy and identity, print communications, signage and environmental graphics and packaging. Contact her at beth_novitsky@gensler.com.

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