About a year ago Umair Haque said that brands today don't make any economic sense (he also said that NYT should acquire Twitter, um.) Years earlier, Wired said something similar. Their argument was that there's so much information around today that we don't need brands anymore. The logic behind it went something like this:
1. Brand is information from a company promising consumers a set of costs and benefits from the consumption of goods or service. 2. In the past, this information was treated as a scarce resource that was communicated via short television, print, and radio ads. 3. Today, there's no info scarcity and people can get first-hand information from others online, and 4. Since we don't need to compress the info about the expected value of goods and services into a logo or an ad, we don't need brands anymore. People stop trusting brand promise to help them in their purchasing decisions, and because they have info from others, their product choices are less risky. And when risk goes down, people's willingness to experiment goes up, and there's no loyalty as a result. Out goes the brand.
This would make a perfect sense if there wasn't a problem (a big one). If we base our argument around plain old availability of information, then as soon as we proclaim that there's no information scarcity we end up dealing with the problem of information abundance.
And that, turns out, is not what brand challenge is about at all.
Why? First, if we say that you don't need brands because there's info abundance, very shortly afterward we will claim that we actually do need brands to help us filter through all the available info, so that's a problem. But, the bigger problem is that the challenge of digital media is not that they offer a mere plurality of information sources (more info from more places), but that they increase complexity of communication as a resource (a person needs to navigate and interact and find and rate).
If we really want to talk about the role of brands online, then instead of focusing on information abundance (which is, when you think about it, just an extension of traditional communication position that a person is passive and easily bombarded with information), we need to focus on ways that information is categorized, organized, and presented so it helps people make product decisions and make their choices less risky.
Now, this is a brand challenge.
There are a lot of many great tools and resources on the Internet that help people decide among products regardless of the brand promise. So, the only think that may not make sense in digital is brand promise, not the brand itself. Why?
When brands are online, they too often think they need to communicate their promise in a way that "breaks through the clutter" because there's so much info around; and they think they need to filter this info abundance for consumers by telling them that their brand is the best. So they build a website or a minisite or an app. Turns out, that sort strategy online is plain stupid - because it treats digital just as TV on steroids.
Smart brands figured out they can be, instead, a resource in consumer decision-making: either by accompanying product with a service, or with a customer support, or with a superior e-commerce, or with a community, or with an advice. Then consumers go to them not because of their brand promise, but because of a tangible benefit.
Digital really doesn't kill brands, it just redefines what (and how) we call the brand.