Brands on the Brain

Grocery Brands

My roommate and I get along in almost every way, which is good, because we had a disagreement that would have ended a lesser friendship: he brought home store-brand cereal. I was horrified, of course, as any red-blooded American would be! But, being the good and open-minded man that I am, I let my friend convince me to defend my convictions in a blind taste test. It is with great shame that I admit that I could not tell which cereal was which. So now I’m left asking: how could this happen? I’m not talking about my faulty taste buds, but about the hold these brand names had on me. What can the experts tell me about how brands work? Why do I trust them so much?

Your amusing experience is an instructive one, because it reminds us of what brands are--as well as of what they aren’t. A brand, of course, is the sum total of everything that distinguishes a product from others. It’s the logo and the official colors, the Twitter account and the advertising strategy, the history and the culture--it’s all of it, and it’s enough to make you reach for a Coke over a Pepsi (or vis versa) without even looking at the price.

Brands can have a serious hold on us. A majority (59%) of consumers prefer to buy products from companies that they’re familiar with. Branding can be contagious, with 38% of moms preferring brands that other moms they know like on Facebook. And if you think this is all skin-deep, think again: 64% of customers cite shared values as the reason they’re loyal to brands. Yes, really: shared values! Clearly, customers have brands on the brain.

But do all these brands really mean anything? Well, that all depends. Nobody knows generic brands like, and they told us something you already know: that quality, not branding, is what defines a product. But customers need to trust that they’re getting quality. works with electronics, and they select quality products to sell--so there’s still a brand at play in their strategy, and its their own. Customers get quality without the brand name, but trust is being built, in this case, by itself.

There are whole industries, of course, where the opposite strategy reigns supreme. The car dealership model, for instance, highlights the product’s brand. The pros at Ernest McCarty Ford rely on two brands: their own and Ford’s. The two support each other--a national manufacturer with a rich history, paired with a local institution--but a customer needs to trust both for the system to work.

That part of the equation--trust--is why brands can help customers, too. Your brand-name cereal’s failure to beat the generic is something you won’t soon forget. An incredible 91% of consumers have an aversion to “dishonest brands,” meaning that scandals and failures can haunt companies for years. In fact, 4 out of every 10 Americans say they’ve boycotted a brand over “irresponsible behavior” in the past year. So while branding may sometimes seem like magic, much of a brand’s power is earned. Companies can do a lot with their brands, but customers can also use brands to track their own preferences.

“All fashion brands are about looking good. Being Human is also about doing good. And you can do good by the simple act of slipping into a t-shirt or a pair of jeans.” --Salmaan Khan


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