There's been a lot of talk recently about how SEO is dead, and branding will rise out of its ashes. I have to disagree. If anything, branding is the marketing technique on its way out--a victim of how search has changed the way people think and shop, online and offline.
Once upon a time, a consumer had to juggle a lot of information just to make a relative intelligent purchase. In 1991, if you wanted to buy a portable compact disc player, you had to know:
1. What you wanted to buy (portable compact disc player)
2. What brand you wanted to buy (Sony)
3. What product you wanted to buy (Discman)
4. What store to buy it at (The Wiz)
5. Where to find that store (Menlo Park Mall)
Aside from Step 1, every other piece of information came to you from branding. Sony did an amazing job branding the Discman, to the point where it was synonymous with "portable CD player." The Wiz was also an obvious choice based on branding; after all, no one beat it. And Menlo Park Mall was close to my house and it was the mall from Mallrats. If you wanted to research prices, you either had to go store to store (and presumably know which stores to go to) or compare Sunday circulars. To compare products, you needed a copy of Consumer Reports. All that knowledge, or the ways to access it, was put into your head through branding.
Today, it's quite different. Looking to buy a new MP3 player in 2008? With a search engine, that's about all you need to know. A search in Google for "mp3 player" brings up C|Net's MP3 Buying Guide. After reading some reviews, you decide on a flash memory player and then on the Creative Zen 16GB. You might then check out the prices quoted on C|Net, or search for "Creative Zen 16GB" in Google, or in a price comparison engine like Google Product Search or Shopping.com. And you'll likely end up getting the Zen from whichever store has the best price and seems trustworthy.
Branding still matters somewhat. After all, you might recognize the names "C|Net," "Creative" and "Zen." But you didn't find them based on their brand; you found them via search. In fact, the branding that matters the most were those of the tools you used: Google, Google Product Search and Shopping.com.
Search drives the sale; branding only validates it. We've been conditioned by search not to be brand loyal. We may check out Amazon.com for the MP3 Player, but we have no qualms about buying it elsewhere. We have a world of information at our fingertips, and we only need the barest bit of data to access it. Why remember a brand when you can so easily find it again? Even when branding works on us, we validate that branding by searching for the brand in a search engine instead of going straight to the brand's web site. If that branding fully worked, the lucrative field of reputation management would disappear.
So branding isn't exactly dead yet, but in a world where we've been conditioned to use brands as--at most--a secondary measure of a company's worth, and to validate branding through search, it's importance continues to wane. In that world, a world where search still leads the way in driving revenue, SEO cannot die.