"There is no there, there is only here, and we are all here!" That quotation comes from an MCI television ad that ran several years ago. Academy Award-winning child actress Anna Pacquin is pictured in several different geographical settings. She reminds us that the power of the network to move information at the speed of light makes it possible for everyone to be interconnected. This power is a global reality thanks to satellite communications and the Internet. One of the most pervasive influences of this power is the ability to create and capitalize on brand names. Strong brands will become the currency of the future in a marketplace cluttered with endless choices and instant access. Think about it. You can now buy almost anything you want, anytime you want, without leaving the comfort of your home, your office, your car, your vacation, or business trip -- and have it delivered to your home or office (or anywhere else you specify) within a day or two. What comes next? "Beaming" products or people like the "transporter" in the TV series Star Trek is still far off. But computers that accept voice commands are here. Motorola Inc.'s StarTac phone is almost a copy of the Star Trek communicator. Nokia Corp.'s 6000 series digital cell phone lets you not only use the phone but also connect to the Internet, surf, do e-mail, and more. Nextel has a phone-like device that lets users within confined ranges communicate, and it also can make phone calls to anywhere in an instant. Web TV turns your TV set into a Web surfer. Powerful laptop computers at less than three pounds are common. Other laptop computers have the power and memory of mainframes of just a decade ago. Want to know anything, find anything, and do anything? Check it out on the Web. It's probably there. Don't like shopping? A "bot" will do it for you. (A "bot" is short for a robot shopper that will search the Internet for whatever you want, compare prices and availability, and see which of several choices you prefer.) This technology is not yet fully refined, but the process exists and the technology is being used. This demonstrates the importance of the Internet to branding. The "bot" will look for the brand you specify. If no brand is specified, how will you tell your "bot" what you want? Generic descriptions might work for a loaf of whole wheat bread or a gallon of milk, but what about clothing, appliances, personal care items, and billions of other choices? Brands are not just an important part of the future -- they are the keys to success in finding what you want in the internetworked future. Brand proliferation creates problems of too many names competing for space in the time-starved consumer's consciousness. Worse yet, those brands are competing across a huge number of media channels. More so than ever before and increasing with astronomical speed, this dilemma is made worse by brand extensions and sub-brands. Tylenol alone has 26 different cold remedy SKUs on the shelf. At least 20 to 30 types of bread are displayed in the supermarket. The simple decision of how to buy the ingredients for a sandwich might present hundreds of options of just three basic ingredients and the condiments -- mustard (regular, Dijon style, with horseradish, etc.), ketchup, pickles, mayonnaise, relish, and so forth. Brands must break through this clutter. One way is to be different. Miracle Whip sandwich spread/salad dressing has succeeded as a desirable alternative to mayonnaise. Apple is an alternative to Wintel PCs. Picante sauce now outsells ketchup, almost entirely due to its image as a different, low-fat, tangy, dip and condiment. While you can now buy almost anything you want, anywhere you want, anytime you want, how do you decide which one to select? You find a brand you like, one that you trust or are familiar with. Brand names have been enormously powerful in the past. Thanks to the reach and power of the Internet, they will be even more powerful in the future.
John Mariotti, a former manufacturing CEO, is president of The Enterprise Group, a consulting business. He lives in Knoxville. His Web site is www.shape-shifters.com.