PLAIN PACKAGING

Over the last twelve months, since the INTA Brand Authenticity conference in Berlin in December of 2017, my understanding of brands has shifted. At that time, I was chiefly impressed by what I saw as a main driver of the future of brands, namely the role technologies played and will play in shaping the life of brands. That conference has explored the important issues that seem to increasingly dominate modern perception of brands, such as brand authenticity, integrity, sustainability and others. Since then, while interacting with the brand owners and brand specialists, I started realizing that the future of brands will not be determined only by the impact of technologies, but primarily by the sentiment of their consumers. In order to explain this, let me offer that now I believe not only that the technologies will still provide the platform on which the brands will continue evolving but this will evolve into a parallel interaction driven by the consumers and the societies at large. Such was the case with the emergence of Internet that shifted brand influence from being one way communication from the brand owners to the consumers, into a two-way interactive path where the consumers shape the perception of a brand evenhandedly. Without the technology this change would not happen, but the main impact will be made by the interacting consumers, not by the technology itself. In other words, it is not only the technology that made the interactivity emerge, it is the consumer whose feed-back transformed the brand discourse from a monologue into a dialogue. Without a consumer’s voice the technology would remain numb. If anything, the emergence of new technologies has the effect of emphasizing the importance of trust as a central building block of the relation between the consumers and the brands and trust might remain the condition contingent for survival of brands as a chief vehicle of communication between a product or a service and its consumers.

It is in this light and in this context that I have since thought about the issue of plain packaging. This issue has been hanging around, every legal regulation met with the determined resistance of the tobacco industry brand owners and remains legally unresolved as it helps shape our understanding of possible brand restrictions ahead. As many others, I am now convinced that these two issues are very important for the future of brands. Both plain packaging of possibly harmful products and wider brand restrictions might not only remain in the field of plain packaging of the tobacco products but might spread to different other industries, such as processed food and pharmaceuticals that loom large as a possible target for regulation of brand usage.
It is increasingly evident that many societies feel that they need to undertake certain steps to regulate market behavior of the companies that sell the products whose impact on the health of the consumers is pronounced. The epic battle that ensued in the case of the tobacco brands restrictions in the form of additional deterring imagery related to the health effects of smoking tobacco was further extended to the severe restrictions of the brand usage where only the name of the brand is permitted to be used in neutral, non brand related logos on a neutral background and not much else on the packaging except the deterrent imagery. From the consumer’s point of view all glamour and allure of the lifestyle that brands and the product usage they formerly accompanied are eliminated. The product cannot anymore promise any fun or lifestyle elevation it used to promise when its brand was fully and freely deployed in the past.

In a way, what is largely perceived as a threat to the life of brands, is a consequence of a realization of the tremendous power of brands in modern societies. Demands to regulate brands and impose restrictions on the freedom of use of many trademarks that support brands comes out of an emerging understanding of how immense the power the brands represent in the modern context. In a paradoxical way, the drive to regulate and impose brand restrictions is probably the one of biggest compliments the brands received in their history, albeit unwanted. Apparently the societies had a reckoning of the true power of a brand and have conluded that such power needs to be checked if it is not exercised with sufficient responsibility and restraint. This comes at the time when the societies are showing intention for different type of brands, largely those that certify sustainable products, house marks that distinguish themselves from the premium brands on price and possible impatience with the brands being used as a principle vehicle for the communication between the product and its consumer. GAP example of brand fatigue.

This is to share my views on where these legislative and broader social movements could take us. As indicated above, I see recent developments in light of the broader shift of brands in relation to trust. It seems to me that the consumers are increasingly expecting from the brands they interact with to show traits of integrity and authenticity. In the brave new world the brands cannot continue their monologue but are forced into a dialogue, and this conversation is partially social in its nature and broader than the exchanges with their consumers only. The entire society is able to mold a particular brand value today, not only its consumers. The society is also exerting its influence in determining the role of brands and trademarks as the vehicles for passing on the information on the products and services of their interest. In order to survive in their important traditional role as a guidance to the consumers, the brands need to maintain or establish the base of trust between the brand owner and the consumer.
In this light it seems that the societies at large have decided to demand higher standards of integrity from brands then in the past. In the current situation with the tobacco industry, they seem to demand more responsibility in their communications to the consumers. As a consequence, I personally feel that the traditional trademark analysis is insufficient to understand this complex dynamic ad that only by looking the role of brands can we properly frame the trend. In other words, in the particular situation where the power of brand seem to be capable of inducing the self-harming of the consumer, the societies (public interest) seem to be ready to step in and intervene by regulating the field.

Therefore, traditional legal analysis is insufficient and might have detrimental effect in the social dialogue between the brand owners and the society. Filing intricate legal appeals will not necessarily lead to the increased power of the brand in question or to a desired result of safeguarding its value. Hiding behind the identity of tobacco producing countries will hardly result in the increased value of a brand as the society is making up its mind if the industry is misusing its power. Proper answer might be taking responsibility in managing brands in such a way that they help improving consumers well-being. In this way, we can say that the brands got a very strong but unwanted compliment. Their tremendous power of sway that brands hold has been fully recognized by the contemporary societies, which have apparently decided that such power can be exercised unchecked only with due responsibility on behalf of the brand owner. This is further compounded by the realization that private interests have outgrown their traditional proportion and that private interests have, in many instances, completely outgrown their traditional position and started dominating over many public entities and interests they are supposed to represent, including many countries. Remaining defenseless in light of such strong private interest, public entities have decided to try reasserting themselves by introducing the restrictions that we will be discussing. This is why I am afraid that invoking the threats to the private rights and interests will not necessarily find a sympathetic ear in this discussions, in spite of its real concerns for the balance of competing social values which remain to be resolved in a just manner.
Of course, this all is a challenge in brand management and needs a novel approach, but the alternative might be further erosion of the asset (goodwill) of the brand that will anyway remain detrimental to its value for the brand owner. They might be risking diminishing the value of their brands by insisting on their legal rights. Therefore, I see protracted legal battles and trying to influence the legislators in other ways as ultimately a loosing strategy for the brand owners. Of course, the issue of diminishing value is of concern and muttering about the brand restriction being akin to expropriation reflect this, but the real stark choice is between devaluing one’s brand anyway if the elements of responsibility and trust are not maintained. In other words, although I share brand owners’ concern about the pecuniary loss related to the goodwill of their tobacco brands, I remain convinced that the only way to deflect this is not conducting complex legal combat but building a different approach of guarding the trust element in their communication to the consumers and to the society at large.

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