Surowiecki on the Decline of Brands

Catching up on back reading, I came across James Surowiecki’s Wired article The Decline of Brands from Nov. 2004. If you haven’t read it, I recommend the article highly–it’s provocative and interesting.

Surowiecki argues that consumers’ brand loyalty has declined for several reasons:

* consumers are more informed about their options and more demanding about what they get from manufacturers

* manufacturer quality has gone up across the board, so consumers feel less risk going with an off-brand

As a result, he writes, “If once upon a time customers married brands – people who drove Fords drove Fords their whole lives – today they’re more like serial monogamists who move on as soon as something sexier comes along.”

I’m not sure I agree with the article’s assessment of the effect of additional information. Obviously, sites like Epinions act as a brand leveler by pointing out strong products with unknown brands and weak products put out by the best brands. However, there remains too much information, and I continue to believe that brands will be a way of sorting through information overload. Further, we still need brands to help consumers distinguish their product offerings in the marketplace–consumers still need a nomenclature to accurately distinguish competitive products X and Y.

I’m also interested in the article’s implicit discussion about trademark “goodwill,” which we often characterize as buyer momentum or the persistence of buyers to keep transacting with the same source. The article challenges that consumers behave in such a fashion any more. If consumers don’t actually have “goodwill” towards a brand, in the sense of driving consumer behavior towards brands, then perhaps we run the risk of overweighting goodwill in our legal analysis.