Brave new world

Matthew Valentine gets a glimpse into the future in a new book on brands and what leading players expect from them 25 years from now

Convincing 25 famous, and not so famous, people to make predictions about the shape of brands in 25 years is an impressive feat. Experience would tend to suggest that any such future visions are almost always hopelessly wrong – witness any 1974 edition of Tomorrow’s World.

But the hopes and desires of the owners and managers of some familiar brands, plus other contributors simply deemed “interesting”, form the basis of The Future of Brands, a new book celebrating the 25th anniversary of Interbrand.

An eclectic group has been chosen. Author and Observer editor Will Hutton, film maker Spike Lee, Starbucks Coffee Company chairman and chief executive Howard Schultz and fashion designer Paul Smith have some interesting points to make.

“We live in a world today that is one giant commercial, and the customer by and large does not believe the message anyway,” says Schultz.

But cynical Schultz is not: to him brands must inspire trust, hope and community. Kids need heroes, he argues, and this end of the 20th century has no Churchills, Roosevelts or DiMaggios. “Nowadays, we don’t see grace, we don’t see humility, we don’t see leadership, we don’t see responsibility. And in the future, that will be as much a part of building a brand as anything else.”

If this sounds like the march of the Stepford Brands, Smith’s chapter is a welcome antidote. “I think in many ways the world is now over-full of brands, over-full of hype, and over-full of information,” he opens.

And Smith could teach Schultz something about humility: “I’m not the VIP within the company; the customer is the person who spends hard-earned money on our product, and that’s really important to remember.” Smith isn’t impressed by brands, only wears his own clothes because he gets them free and drives a 1956 car because he likes the shape of it. His business, which he describes as “relatively big in British fashion terms, althoughä small in global terms”, has achieved sales of £173m a year.

But despite their sometimes differing viewpoints, Smith and Schultz agree on the idea that companies, and brands, should give something back to the societies they operate in. In this they find common ground with Hutton, and his popular views on stakeholder capitalism.

Thomas Carr, a hotly tipped 15-year-old surfer, gives an insight into watersports brands such as Kangaroo Poo and Billabong, and points out the importance of relevance when a manufacturer sponsors sporting events. Interestingly, to Carr, Sony PlayStation has far more relevance to his sport than Coca-Cola.

Geneticist Steve Jones has some different views about the strengths and weaknesses of brands, and brings a degree of scientific common sense to the book. Perhaps taking a genetic view of things, he sees nothing wrong with companies doing what they were established, and evolved, to do.

Monsanto, attacked by environmentalists for producing GM foods, is just doing what it was formed to do and, more importantly, what it has been allowed to do, Jones argues. “I’d far rather eat GM foods than the American diet,” he adds. Conforming to the scientist stereotype though, he nominates his favourite brand, Guinness, on the consistency and predictability of its taste.

New and evolving methods of communication are a factor most contributors mention, but there is no collective opinion of how the Internet will change brands. Brands not using it are expected to falter, new ones like the highly valued Web-based companies will emerge.

But responsibility, as much as Internet, could be the buzz word of the book. A constantly reinforced message is that the information age is making it much more difficult for companies to hide skeletons in their closets: if they wish to avoid the wrath of disgruntled consumers they have a simple option – to tell the truth.

The Future of Brands is published by Macmillan Business, priced £25

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