No, planned brand communication cannot be replaced by “delivering a great product or service that will get your customers talking (online)”, like I’ve heard said more than once in recent years. Not that you shouldn’t. You should deliver a spectacular product, if you can. But there’s something far too simple about this concept.
The fundamental flaw, as I see it, is a naive conceptualisation of what makes a “great product”. I’d say everybody would agree that the quality of the product is intrinsically linked to human experience. That is, at least when talking about products in this context (as objects on a market, as opposed to objects in a test setting or similar), it’s the user’s experience and opinion of the product that matters. A great product is one which the user thinks is a great product.
But there are literally hundreds of studies made on consumers over the course of the last, say, fifty years that tell you that people’s appraisal of a product is a highly subjective thing – a wonderfully complex concept filled with cultural bias, preconceptions, situational factors … All very typical for the complicated creature that is the human being. Consumers who drink beer with visible brands see those beers tasting very differently and prefer beers with their favorite brand label, whereas unbranded beers are judged as tasting similar to each other (Allison&Uhl:1964). Your enjoyment of a certain wine increases when you think it’s more expensive, even when you’re actually being served the same wine over and over. And so on.
When claiming that a “great product is the new marketing”, one seems to assume that suddenly, humans experience a product through a radically less complex process: a very non-human objective appraisal of product qualities, that will be shared equally objectively to information-hungry potential new consumers. But surely, it’s been a while since anyone could seriously have such a schematic concept of human behaviour. Even the Homo Economicus died some time ago, after years of illness.
This is not to say that people’s true conception of the quality of a product can be easily subverted by branding. It’s to say that there is no “true conception” based only on the physical product, and therefore, communication plays an integral part in the experience of the product. Together with other aspects (like, obviously, intrinsic product qualities), it helps create very real enjoyment. All very complicated business, and very human. That’s what makes it so interesting.