Despite his name, Douglas Daft is nobody’s fool. As a former chief executive of Coca-Cola he is plainly a man to be reckoned with, which makes it all the more regrettable that the golden years of his retirement should be blighted by dinners with people whom he graciously describes as “fascinating” and whose conversation he describes, with more courtesy than candour, as “interesting”.
He tells us in a recent newspaper article that these unnamed diners ply him again and again with the same question/ What is a brand? “People assume,” he says wearily, “that because of the company I worked for, I should be able to offer a specific and simple response. The fact is, however, that the definition of a brand has become more and more complex and open to interpretation.”
That is probably not what his listeners want to hear. I am sure they would far prefer that he should produce a snappy definition allowing the meal to move swiftly on to the fish course and the conversation to school fees and house prices.
Dinner parties are not the only cross that Mr Daft must bear in his retirement: he is troubled too by the uncertain state into which his life’s work has fallen. That is not to say that Coca-Cola is in trouble – the nutritionally useless beverage continues to enjoy considerable popularity throughout both the civilised and uncivilised worlds – rather that global branding is itself under threat.
He cites in particular the effect of America’s war on terror and the consequent growth in anti-American sentiment. “Brand owners and developers can no longer rely on the halo effect of consumers’ desire for a perceived ‘American’ lifestyle,” he writes.
As if that were not discouraging enough, health and lifestyle issues are impinging on the sovereignty of brands. “Not just what we eat and drink,” he says, “but what we do. Some argue that business creates the problem, yet it is the consumer who is guilty of eating too much, doing too little physical activity or spending too much leisure time in front of a screen.
“Many governments have stepped in to introduce guidelines on diet and to encourage lifestyle changes. Any brand involved in what we eat or drink and how we spend our leisure time must be part of the debate. Ignore it, take no action, and the impact can be swift and negative.”
This is indeed a crisis point in the evolution of the brand. Until now the unquestioned purpose of branding has been to sell more products and services. Of course, there is more to it than that; there are matters of quality, reliability, loyalty and so on, but at the end of the day (to use a phrase which must ping back and forth across the dinner tables where Mr Daft is apt to be held prisoner) the aim is sell and keep selling. Or, put another way, to keep the consumer consuming. But now, for the first time in the history of capitalism, we have the problem of consumers who won’t stop consuming.
Across the Western world, wherever you may care to look, there are people gorging themselves with food and drink and miraculously heaving their inflated bodies to supermarkets where they can stock up on more, and to other shops where they may buy all manner of electronic gadgetry whose pleasures are chiefly sedentary. The result, astonishingly, is that we are living longer and longer, to the anger and dismay of doctors, nutritionists, health lobbyists and their impressionable dupes, national governments, all of whom insist that our fat bottoms are seated upon bombshells of our own making.
It cannot go on. A way must be found to stop consumers from consuming, or at any rate to permit only that amount of consumption that is good for them. In other words, the whole purpose of the brand must be re-thought. As Mr Daft wisely puts it, the brand must be part of the debate. The problem, however, is that not only is there no debate but there can be none. How does one exchange views with dogmatists who claim to be in possession of all the facts and of the truth?
There is nothing for it then but to devise a system of branding that discourages consumption. This is without doubt the greatest challenge that marketers have faced, but it is not insurmountable. They must take a lead from the environmentalists who are already pointing the way. Non-consumption requires that we turn off our lights, stay at home, both in the sense of keeping indoors and not leaving these shores, subsist on home-grown fruit and vegetables and run everywhere. Tomorrow’s brand will wear a woolly hat and sandals and live for ever.