A recent article in the New Yorker suggested that brands are in decline. That begs the question: what's a brand?
A brand is simply a name or symbol that indicates source. It has another name — a trademark. In days past, as the New Yorker article observes, a brand (or trademark) was a shorthand way of determining quality. In 1969, the brand "Judge" referred to a souped up American muscle car with a distinctive paint job, retractable headlights, and optional 370 hp. (Full disclosure: in 1998, I negotiated for a week or so with a judge in New York who was trying to sell his cherry '69 GTO Judge on eBay. It didn't happen, but I sometimes regret not pursuing it further). When you went to the dealer and asked for that car in 1969, you knew you'd be getting a classic American muscle car. However, you might not have known about "an internal GM policy limiting all cars except the Corvette to no more than one advertised horsepower per 10 lb of curb weight," which served to limit performance.
Now that the Internet has been around a while, Amazon and other online companies provide tons of information on the quality of goods. Anymore, we don't have to rely upon brand names as shorthand for quality. We can research any item we want to buy, whether it is a soft-shell jacket, a set of tires, or a beard trimmer. We can immediately compare product specifications (which set of mud tires has the best wear rating?), as well as scores of customer reviews about any product under the sun (how do those same tires fare with road noise?). For instance, I've worn about half the tread off my 285/75R16 BF Goodrich KM2's after 26,000 miles, and I've only been stuck once (thanks Dr. J — UPDATE: photos of getting stuck).
The New Yorker article cites some statistics about how we rely upon brand names a lot less than we used to as a result of the availability of this type of information. So, trademarks are less an indicator of quality, and more an indicator of source (which is the traditional definition anyway). Brands are now a starting point for as an indicator of quality, rather than the final word. I think that's a good thing for consumers. In the past, brand = quality = price. Now, since the comparison of cost versus quality is much easier to make; brand might still equal price, but consumers can pretty well figure out if the quality justifies the price.
As an example, when I bought my KM2s, the Nitto Mud Grappler was a more expensive and much more popular alternative. However, I'd had Michelin tires before (Michelin owns BF Goodrich) and never had a flat after having too many with Firestone, Cooper, and Kelly tires. So, my comparison was based on what I saw on the street and also on experience with several brands. I did a lot of research on tirerack.com (which no longer carries the Nittos). I wound up going with the KM2s after reading not-so-great treadwear reviews of the Nittos, which were about 10% more expensive. I also considered the Bridgestone mudders, since that's what Dad and a property manager for a local timber company both ran. However, the Bridgestone's treadwear ratings were about 15% worse than the KM2s, which justified paying about 10% more for the KM2s. I still like my choice because I rarely feel like I'm going to get stuck, even if I'm in the middle of the Ouachita River. Another review dealt with road noise: with the KM2s, I can still hear myself think, even on the interstate.
So, what does this means for brands? I agree with the New Yorker article that it's a mixed bag. Consumers still might lean one way or the other due to prior experience, but now they have the option of easily researching purchases on the Internet. Sometimes that will sway opinions, sometimes not. But it's nice to have choices.