Eriseoftheeducatedconsumerver think about the real difference between Kellogg’s and Millville? No, I’m not talking about the two cities in Wabasha County, MN.  I’m referring to the tale of two brands – one that’s a household name and the other one that is – well – just in the house. Cheerios and Crispy Oats look the same, taste the same, have similar visual branding elements, and have nearly identical ingredients. But, today, at any given time, consumers will opt for the much-lower priced Millville brand. Why? Because most educated consumers can see behind the brand curtain – and what they’re finding are just layers of marketing glop covering products that are only slightly different than less-known alternatives.  If you substitute cereal, for instance, with Bayer and no-frills brand aspirin, the same behavior applies. And with the skyrocketing pace of information transparency online, the big brand value proposition is becoming a harder pill to swallow.

Consumers are smarter than ever. And that’s great for the consumer, but not so wonderful for brands that rely solely on the experience to maintain customer loyalty. Shockingly, companies like Viridian, North American Power and others won millions of energy customers from mega-branded utility companies across the country. Once consumers caught wind of the benefits of energy deregulation, the choice was simple: reduce costs.

James Surowiecki offers a brilliant synopsis: Twilight of the Brands in The New Yorker. He uses the example of Lululemon Athletica, which was one of the hottest brands in the world just twelve months ago. Revenues were off the charts for its premium-priced yoga gear; the company was expanding; and it all was happening quickly. But when customers started noticing cheap fabrics, fading colors, and extremely thin yoga pants that were essentially transparent, the brand was put to the test. And when the company founder implied that that certain people are too fat to wear the yoga pants, the brand took a fatal nosedive.

But while brand destruction and mismanagement can clearly lead to failure, some brands are performing well, but are still getting undercut by what used to be less popular brands a decade ago. Think about Kia, Hyundai, Acer, and other brands that are now winning more consumers than ever before. It’s happening because people have become better consumers of everything from healthcare to electronics to travel and more. In fact, no matter what the industry, consumers are making decisions based on web reviews, Google searches, social media interactions, and other online channels.

Brands are clearly important, but they’re not as valuable alone as they once were. In the twinkling of an eye, a brand can diminish – but a good product offered by an unknown brand can actually reap huge margins from a big brand overnight.  For every Lululemon Athletica, there is a small brand competitor ready and willing to benefit from the long trail of marketing dollars that preceded it. For decades, brands have been able to buy their way to the top. And to a certain extent, you can still do that, but your stay at the top might not last all that long.