Are Brands Obsolete?

Last week, the New Yorker's financial page asked a question far bigger than the single page of text it occupied: are brands, as we know them, over? Citing the quick decline of cult favorite Lululemon Athletica, the article noted that rapid-fire information exchange, damning one-star Amazon reviews, and the ease of internet research in general means brands are no longer as powerful as they once were.

Think back to whatever clichéd version of the 1950s you have in your head, when America was repressed and print was king. Sans Internet, customers had far fewer ways to find out about a brand's good or bad qualities; instead, they were almost solely reliant on print advertisements, word of mouth, and their own experience with the brand in question. Thus, brand loyalty was incredibly important — if Levi's could convince a customer that Levi's makes good jeans, Levi's had a customer for life.

Today, that idyllic customer-for-life relationship is practically over. While "as recently as the 1980s, four-fifths of American car buyers stayed loyal to a brand," an Ernst & Young study reveals that today, only 25 percent of American consumers say brand loyalty impacts their buying behavior. The culprit? Ease of Internet research. In seconds, a potential customer can read Amazon reviews, compare prices, and click over to the next guy's blue jeans. Plus, if the CEO of Levi's has done something you, personally, find reprehensible, you can easily find out about it — and switch brands.

What's interesting, though, is that while the internet may have rendered some aspects of brand loyalty nearly obsolete, it's made the aspirational aspect of branding much more visible. Literally. Just look at Free People's new FP Me Takeover campaign, which swaps out model photographs for snapshots of FP's most loyal customers. It's all based around an online community of photo-sharing; the girls who are temporarily replacing FP models all have that dreamy, filtered, boho aesthetic down pat. They don't need to be loyal to Free People — a quick Internet search will turn up hundreds of other boho brands that offer different qualities — but because Free People's done such a good job creating a brand for the Internet age, with a fairly vibrant online style community and tons of tantalizingly Pintrest-able pictures, they want to.