It crystallised a suspicion I've had for a while: that the Age Of Branding is finally over, and that business and public opinion are fatally fed-up with the flaccid rhetoric of the branding industry.
There was a point in the 80s when branding was the future of business. Companies realised you could stick brand value on their balance sheets, so they did. Consultants realised they could charge a fortune for advice about brands, so they did (also twigging it was in their interests to claim that everything was a brand: "Yup, that's a brand, we can consult on that."). And the money people looked to the branding people for all the money-making ideas. So you got line extensions, expensive logos, vast identity programmes and brand onions. And most of it was about as intellectually rigorous as Scientology: somewhere between a fake religion and a false science, driven by bluster, energy and twisted statistics, kept afloat with hot-air and sharp-suited conviction.
Recently, though, the branding machine has started to run out of steam as empowered consumers start to demand actual differences between parity products, and busin-esses are rediscovering that it's often cheaper, easier and more effective to genuinely improve their product or service than it is to market your way to differentiation. Thus, the branding wizards who used to provide the intellectual leadership in so many areas are being replaced by designers, technologists and service experts. Look at Marks & Spencer, for example: certainly there's effective branding and communications work going on there, but what's really made the difference? Well- designed products. Nicer shops. A better experience. That's why design businesses are getting access to the board-level conversations ad agencies used to have; that's why the chief marketing officer is the most insecure "C-level" role, and that's why BusinessWeek's resident heroes are IDEO and Ives, not Interbrand and Inge.
And that's a shame, because the idea of "brand" is a genuinely useful one; and there's still nothing that delivers ROI like a remarkable breakthrough TV commercial, and a thoughtfully designed logo can still be a repository of great meaning. Marketing, communications, branding, whatever you want to call it, still has a role to play in contemporary commerce and culture. It's just that we've undermined our own credibility with years of over-claim and over-thinking. We need to stop dumb stunts like holding launches for logos and go back to the humble business of trying to add a little magic to great products and services.