It’s time to ditch some traditional thinking about brands, says Leo Rayman of Grey Consulting – and the ‘brand onion’ is high up on his list.

Classical brand thinking is under more pressure than ever before. Rightly so, because the big winners of recent years have been the new direct-to-consumer businesses, capturing the lion’s share of growth without thinking about ‘brand’ in the way corporate marketers do.

This is contentious stuff: if you can experience hypergrowth, build a powerful reputation and do it all without recourse to formal brand management expertise, you have to ask what that expertise is good for these days…

Of course, BrandZ continues to show the market power of big established brands, but that list will look very different in 2025. Today, people are often more loyal to service than to brand. The desire for near-instant delivery means that a good enough, well-enough reviewed, competitively-priced product is an acceptable choice. Particularly so in commodities. Do you really care whether your AA batteries are branded Amazon or Duracell?

The traditional skills of brand management that dominated marketing from the 90s to the 00s are no longer fit for purpose. They are part of a mental model of how businesses grow demand that is coming badly unstuck. As just one example, think about all those hours spent on defining the brand guidelines – guidelines that provide no guidance on how to behave in what Wunderman Commerce calls the Zero UI world, where the visible interface disappears in favour of a disembodied voice.

Thinking about brands needs renovation, and as with any big renovation project you’re going to have to part with things you were once attached to.

So as we move into the 2020s what needs to go in the skip?

The brand onion definitely has its neck on the block. Agreeing on a succinct form of words to define a brand remains a valuable exercise – not knowing what you stand for is a recipe for disaster. But the hours spent on ‘word-salad’, moving phrases in boxes around an onion, key, wheel etc. creates a dangerous illusion of control. While you’re debating the exact wording, a DTC brand has gathered a small lake of first-party data telling them exactly where to pivot to next.

The 20s brand is First & Fast; it owns first-party behavioural data that blows the old Usage & Attitude study out of the water. It’s fast because it reacts quickly in-market. Much of our work involves helping clients to stay ahead of changing consumer demand and it is amazing how quickly legacy brands with their rigid habits and slow sources of insight lose touch with what’s happening in the categories they’re supposed to be deeply embedded in.

Next in the dumpster is the brand as monolith. A brand can no longer be treated as a giant slab of immovable, unchanging rock. Modern brands have more in common with water – we call them Fluid Brands – designed to flow between platforms and spaces. They change subtly to suit their environment be it physical, virtual or personal.

Finally, a big one to chuck in the dustbin is the manufactured brand purpose, described by journalist Maria Hengeveld as “self-serving corporate fantasy, designed to win trust that isn’t earned”.

The pro-social impact of business has never been higher-up the corporate agenda. But when purpose is applied as a thin cosmetic layer on an organisation, without being embedded across employee behaviour and the entire value chain and then subject to external regulation, it inhibits real change behind a mirage of ‘purpose’.

The modern brand must focus instead on something simpler and truer – motive and character. Be honest about your motives and let others judge you on their terms. If you have an ethical motive, I salute you. If you don’t, okay, but have a superior product or service that does no harm to society today or tomorrow – the modern hygiene factor.

So now we’ve thrown-out all the superfluous stuff the renovation gets underway. What else does a 21st century brand need in order to succeed?

More than anything, the businesses and brands that win in the 21st century will be those that are the most human. But big businesses often find it hard to be human, which is strange because we’re just people selling to people. Even whilst human automation can be a competitive advantage, those brands that deliver the most ‘humane’ automation will be the winners. Most people don’t want to spend time with the Terminator.

Insightful and original strategic thinking about brands is alive and well but the rules of the game have changed. Brand strategy needs to be renovated for the 21st century and those working with brands must be unafraid to dump much of the old tricks, rules of thumb and classical ‘theory’ of branding in the skip.

Taking a step back and asking what it really means to build a successful brand today is immensely liberating. It is also the only way to build future-fit brands for the 2020s.