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    Friday, January 04, 2008

    Direct Distribution - Branding Access

    Seemingly since the history of time, the middleman has been there. The retailer that sold us that horse, or the general store owner who had the last outpost before the Oregon trail, or that car dealer with the shiny cadillac. Really not doing much beyond being the outlet or distributor of content or a product. Not terribly exciting, but a decent way to make a living.

    I just heard about Jackass's new movie being completely digital, i thought wow this is cool. And downright scary at the same time to avoid the traditional model of revenue. But if Radiohead can do it, hey it just might work. But what happens to the theaters who were counting on at least modest to crappy sales to bring in the teen set?

    Having spent some time recently working on a client that could be called a distributor or provider of sorts i have really tried to wrap my head around the idea on how an organization or brand of this sorts can stand for something. anything beyond the content itself. In other words, branding access. Especially if its product is a commodity much like the examples above were at the time.

    Technology offers a good example landscape. Downloading is apparently our next birthright and beyond simple. No one owns it. It shook up the music industry up, so much it had to be rebuilt from the ground up. Why do i need the radio when i can hear, download it, own it on my own? I can access it on my own. Look at the video industry, now in a completely different model thanks to brands like Netflix. The the new Jackass movie is only launching online and is now on sale to consumers, online only. Avoiding the theaters. Completely. Who needs the theaters anymore unless you want a big big screen experience? Technology has created universal access and killed the middleman in the process. It allows for consumer's to build a more personal experience in their own home.

    Ok so why haven't companies disappeared completely then if everyone is doing it on their own or just bringing it home? I mean if access is universal shouldnt we be able to be a self-sustaining society?

    Many would argue that branding is the stopgap between this access and complete consumerism chaos. Netflix has grown a decent bit by only providing access to a product thats a commodity. And thats the problem. Branding access is extremely difficult, if not next to impossible. I can buy it for almost the same price on 100000 other websites. Is that due in part to its effective branding? Amazon offers everything, and i can recall the brand. But it doesnt mean i care about it. Google is the mother of access brands, yet tell me what Google stands for?

    Attempts to brand this access have often been in a way that often defines an experience for consumers. The no-haggle car buying? The freshest produce, the largest toy selection. A point of difference can give emotional credibility in addition to a functional benefit of access. In today's world, distribution is often direct to consumers (if they aren't making it themselves) and access is universal for most of the world. That means middlemen don't matter so much. I can buy that car online and completely avoid a dealership, or go to craigslist and pick up a used couch. Access is a commodity and how do you brand that?

    I would argue that while branding is a somewhat effective tool, the product is still the king driver. I got to store A because i want product x. I'm always looking to purchase a product, and not necessarily a brand. Sometimes a brand, if i want to show off my livestrong bracelet or ipod, but most purchases are for the functional or emotional benefits directly from the product.

    So really maybe branding access isn't the answer to a loss of middlemen or the ability to get those Northface ski pants direct from the manufacturer in China. Lets take it further upriver and make it about the products. Netflix communicates about genres, while companies like AutoTrader and Amazon are about the width of their product scope. Ebay takes a strange route thats about the thrill of winning ( i personally hate competing bids on a product, i just want to win...easily every time). Yet these brands are ultimately about the products they have, and not the experience or access. Sure its great the ebay seller is in Taiwan, but im just happy to find and bid on that smiling cat.

    Which brings me to the conundrum in the first place.

    I see a Whole Foods as the ultimate distributor of sorts. The food isnt necessarily any better or fresher, but comes with a cache and shopping experience that is somewhat unmatched. Not to mention the breadth of products available. Still a go-to for foodies, if they can't find that organic whole wheat crunch in the local mom and pop shop. But its just food, much of which can be found in any ordinary supermarket. The setup isn't different at all, a few products are. How has WF established itself as a unqiue channel or distributor, selling a commodity? Is it just process or provenance? Or is it access and availability? Or is it the shopping experience?

    [ed. note - unfinished thoughts are totally acceptable to finish in questions]

    Is whole foods more about a pleasurable buying experience with access to the best and freshest, or Is it about the products themselves?

    Merely an effective marketer in a new age?




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