Brandwidth 2006 – The Year In Review

A brand called ‘you’?

Time magazine’s choice of the individuals who are “building community and collaboration on a scale never seen before” (yes, that’s you and me apparently) as its Person Of The Year for 2006 suggests that some traditional notions of branding were turned on their heads during the year just past.

This would seem to be borne out by the lightning-quick move of online brands such as YouTube, Bebo, MySpace and Second Life to the centre of the worldwide stage and the value that another whiz kid, Google, was prepared to put on YouTube when it purchased the company for $1.65 billion during the year. However, despite their impressively-quick ascent to the top of the pile in 2006, we will probably need to wait another while before acclaiming these as great brands rather than precocious players who have simply made the most of their first-mover advantage.

There was a dramatic counterpoint to the power of the collective offered by the deaths of a rogue’s gallery of despots throughout the year. From Slobodan Milosevic, Augusto Pinochet and Saddam Hussein to our own beloved Charles Haughey, these figures imposed their singular will on the communities they dominated and branded the times in which they lived in a way which seems increasingly unlikely in a world where person-to-person exchange and collaboration is at an all-time high.

Here at home, our current Taoiseach / PM Bertie Ahern is Haughey’s successor as leader of the party but seems intent on building a very different type of brand (although one no less powerful for all that). Whilst the storms raged about him and his party as investigating tribunals uncovered stories of undeclared and misappropriated contributions, the man they call the ‘Teflon Taoiseach’ emerged with his own personal ratings continuing to fly high.

Meanwhile, on the broader world stage, a brand that had previously been characterised as ‘efficient but cold and humourless’ proved that reinvention is possible if you put your heart and soul into it. Germany, who hosted the soccer World Cup Finals in June, effectively re-branded as a ‘nation at ease with itself’ and demonstrated an ability to offer efficient organisation delivered with good humour and a healthy dollop of self-deprecation. The sight of local German fans sporting the colours of the underdog team and living it up in the stands brightened many of the less-glamorous group games. However, despite the German refusal to play a traditional role, the English team still managed to bite the bullet in a penalty shoot-out.

Another classic sporting rivalry was almost revived when the Dublin and Kerry gaelic football teams looked on course to met in the All-Ireland Final. The publication of Tom Humphries’ book celebrating the legendary exchanges of the seventies reminded us of the birth of ‘The Dubs’ brand and whetted our appetite for another memorable Sunday in September. Alas, the players of the Mayo football team, who Dublin met in the semi-final, showed little regard for the unfolding brand narrative and dumped the Dubs out of the competition.

Across the water, Michael O’Leary’s response to the terrorist attacks in the UK consciously echoed some of the belligerence of a much-loved English icon, Winston Churchill. O’Leary, whose Ryanair suffered alongside the other airlines flying in and out of Britain when the British Government imposed stricter security measures at check-in and boarding, suggested that “the best way to defeat terrorists and extremists is for ordinary people to continue their lives as normal” or ‘Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?’

O’Leary, of course, is a pass-master at positioning the airline as standing up for the little man in the face of bullying. But there was some evidence that he had misjudged his brand position in the takeover bid for the Irish carrier Aer Lingus. Whilst Ryanair rightly targeted the high fares of Aer Lingus and other European flag-carriers in its own rise to the top in previous years, there is little to suggest that the Irish public has ever seen Aer Lingus as anything other than a favourite, if sometimes misguided, national aunt. Ryanair’s efforts to buy out the airline seem to have registered in popular opinion as evidence that the wolf has inadvertently shed some of his sheep’s clothing. Whilst this is unlikely to play out with anything like the same resonance elsewhere in Europe, it will be interesting to see whether Ryanair can succeed in its brand juggling-act over the coming twelve months.

One Irish brand that seems to be juggling its Irish and overseas activities without any difficulty at all is Bulmers (or Magners depending on which side of the Irish Sea you’re on). Launched throughout the UK in March, the Irish Cider quickly took a market-leading position as well as revitalising a tired cider sector there. With the addition of its very much on-brand sponsorship of both the Magners Celtic League and Wasps Rugby Club, the brand looks set to add a little more than time to the bottom line of its owners in 2007.

On the screen, Casino Royale saw the return of possibly the greatest cinema brand of all: the legendary Mr. Bond. Whilst its makers had threatened, in the words of one critic, to “jettison the more fantastic elements of the series and return to the nastier, less larky tone established by the Ian Fleming source novels”, the film was an even greater departure from the formula than expected. Gone were the gadgets that had been a defining feature of previous outings along with the whimsical character of ‘Q’. Nor were there any signs of Moneypenny or too many of the exchanges beloved of Daniel Craig’s more quip-fire predecessors. Instead, we had a more muscular and modern hero who seems to have emphatically delivered at the box-office. However, much of the series’ loyal following over forty years has been built on those same fantastic and larky elements and it’s by no means certain that the brand will survive another forty years if it continues to do without an over-the-top villain bent on world-domination (Bond faces a puppet-adversary in Casino Royale) and other vital brand ingredients.

But perhaps if 2006 has anything to teach us, it’s that world-domination by brands in 2007 and beyond is less likely to be achieved through megalomania and more likely to be as a result of open-source collaboration between what one commentator has called ‘the sovereign citizen’ and his fellows across the world. In other words, the brand called ‘you and me’.