What’s in a Brand?

What’s in a Brand?

How to build trust in skeptical times.

Brandless is a brand. Really—it’s the name of a company. And it’s a great example of how our relationship with brands is changing.

Let’s take a trip into the house of mirrors, just to see if you get as dizzy as I do. Brandless, which sells household staples like soap, olive oil, and applesauce, has a trademark on its name—ironic and wickedly smart. Yet it claims to be eliminating the “brand tax,” described as the markups built into the price of most products for distribution, marketing, and advertising. Brandless says it can deliver high-quality household goods for a flat $3 per item by stripping out the fancy labels and going direct to consumers. It is a brand, yet it is proclaiming an end to the brand tax.

Let’s take a small refresher course on brands:

A brand is a container of trust and meaning. You own the container by trademarking it with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. You insert meaning through the people, products, services, experiences, and communications you use to build your brand. The more relevance you build into your brand, the more valuable it can become, generally speaking.

The positive buzz about Brandless, launched in 2017, is in good part due to a great team in Minneapolis and San Francisco identifying high-quality goods in areas that have become commoditized—in other words, categories where innovation has been stagnant for some time. (When was the last time you saw an innovative cotton swab?) The larger feather in its cap, however, is identifying the underlying trend in our relationship with brands—distrust and disinterest—and innovating around it.

The Edelman Trust Barometer has measured our trust in institutions (media, government, business, and NGOs) for the past 17 years. In 2017, the combined average fell below 50 percent for the first time. This general distrust certainly seeps into the world of brands and allows a new brand like Brandless to make a desirable claim of “the end of the brand tax.” After all, who trusts the tax man (or woman)?

Now, to the disinterest. According to a 2016 study, a solid 74 percent of brands could disappear, and people wouldn’t care. Why so much disinterest? The study connects it to “poor, irrelevant, or failing to deliver” content, which is essentially a lack of personality. Many brands have become too risk-averse, removing most or all of their interesting personality traits. They’ve certainly given up on being creative members of society.

Enter Tina Sharkey and Ido Leffler, the founders of Brandless.

Where other brands have failed to bring new personality, lost trust, and failed to innovate, Brandless itself is the innovation. Across all 400 to 500 products, it has selected the highest quality. You’re not buying into the idea of Grandma Antonelli’s Pasta Sauce from the old country, but rather a more direct approach to the selling points Brandless believes matter most to consumers: organic, gluten-free, hypoallergenic, etc. The Brandless jar is simply labeled “pasta sauce,” with its top traits listed on the front. This is not about being generic, it’s about stripping away the lies we tell ourselves about Grandma Antonelli’s recipe and getting back to good-quality, believable basics.

As we watch the Sears & Roebuck lights go out, Brandless could be the modern-day replacement for that American retailing icon. Sears is more than a century older than Brandless, but they are more similar than your twin cousins. In the beginning, Sears was the brand and the retailer—it delivered many of the goods most needed in rural areas under the Sears & Roebuck brand name. In a recent speech by Brandless chief merchant Rachael Vegas, she noted that Brandless expected its audience to be hipsters in city centers; in fact, the company found its largest customer base in rural areas where access to organic tortilla chips or grapefruit facial scrub would mean at least an hour drive one-way. Bet you didn’t see that coming.

So what does this mean to you, your marketing department, and those brands you own? Start with your “way of thinking.” A great brand is built by the community, not by advertising; this is really the root of the Brandless anti-tax philosophy. If you buy it and like it, you’ll share it with others and build the brand. So think about your community organizers. Who are they? Why do they care about your brand? Do you really care about them? Genuine care doesn’t show up in the form of a marketing stunt or some puffery, it shows up in shared values.

Here’s something you can do today. Ask your team, “What does our brand mean to our most important customers?” and list the descriptions. Are they words like “innovative,” “efficient,” and “global”? Or are they words like “creative,” “fun,” “smart,” and “considerate”? Innovation is for the corporation; design and creativity are for the people. And if you think this only applies to business-to-consumer brands, look at your customers—are they businesses or are they people running businesses?

Final thought for the brand geeks in the audience: Take a close look at your Kleenex box; you’ll notice it explicitly says, “Kleenex Brand Tissue.” This is required to avoid losing a trademark and becoming generic. Would it be possible that Brandless will be so successful (facing becoming generic) to be required to put the word “brand” after its name, as in Brandless brand goods? This brand geek hopes so.

Aaron Keller (aaronkeller@capsule.us) is co-founder and managing principal of Capsule, a Minneapolis branding agency. He co-authored The Physics of Brand, physicsofbrand.com.

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