Product vs. Brand in the Age of Cloud Computing

The present state of the economy is forcing a lot of decision when it comes to managing major brands. For some industries, it may be easy to simply axe product lines that are not selling, nor have much of a future regardless of the economy. For other industries, axing a product line can have a far more profound impact on the brand.

The auto industry is one market sector currently undergoing a major reevaluation. Some cars will go, but also some whole product lines under the aegis of larger brands like GM. (For an interesting take on the branding repercussions of the auto bailout, check out the 1to1 media blog here.) There is a lot invested in major brands like Cadillac, as well as with product lines like the Mustang (is it wrong to mix GM and Ford inside a branding example?). The cultural associations run deep, and discontinuing them makes for very hard decisions, regardless of sales numbers. I am glad I am not faced with such tough decisions for such iconic models and brands.

In the application software world, things are a bit easier in my opinion. The brand is usually a more umbrella concept – encapsulating a cultural identity highly tied to, but not dependent on individual products. For example, Microsoft’s applications work in very different ways than its operating system, but many will lump the two in as one and judge them sight unseen for better or worse.

Also, the idea of what constitutes a product or product consistency is much more fluid in the software world. Instead of buying a 2009 model car, people simply upgrade their CRM software, so even with major upgrades and enhancements the idea is that you are getting major life out of your application. While some older versions will no longer be supported, less planned obsolescence is built into software than, say, the computers that run the software.

The SaaS and cloud models make brand and product an even fuzzier line. As service and product blend, what defines a company’s offering? How does brand reflect product awareness, and vice versa? How difficult, or easy, will it be for SaaS and cloud companies to add new product lines? More important, how will SaaS/cloud providers effectively end a product’s life? In my mind, there has been no SaaS company to ever end-of-life a product without the company itself going under or being sold.

It’s an interesting thought…in the SaaS world, how divorced can brand and product really be?