Post No.: 0384
Brands set up expectations in our minds as consumers, plus we remember past experiences with those brands, which shape how we feel with subsequent experiences with those brands. Brands imbue values and affect how we perceive and enjoy a product, far beyond the plain experiential utility of a product. For example, when blind tasting, people can form one opinion, such as prefer two competing colas equally, but if they believe that they are tasting a particular brand or another then different parts of their brains activate (parts involved in memory and subjectivity) and they can suddenly prefer or dislike one over the other!
So, once more, we don’t experience the world objectively – our internal expectations can shape how we perceive anything we receive through our senses, including the tastes of foods or drinks. Our perceived experience of a product can neurologically change, and our joy or aversion will no longer merely depend on just the product as it is but on the brand and what it evokes in our minds. Subjective belief and expectation play a key role in any resultant experience hence the value of branding for businesses. Manufacturers and retailers understand the importance of trademarks, packaging design, store design, the customer service experience and other ‘touchpoints’. Through branding, essentially identical products can be made to appear differentiated from each other to target different types of buyers, without competing (solely) on price.
But this can come at the cost of obfuscating rational purchasing choice decisions for customers. For instance, people often pay more for branded medicines when they could pay far less for generic medicines that objectively (although perhaps maybe not always subjectively when it comes to pain relief) work exactly the same and may even have the exact same factory product codes i.e. they are literally the exact same product. Brands can make it hard for customers to behave rationally.
Brands and people’s own biases can affect the perception of quality and price, which is why brands normally try to associate themselves with high quality and positive emotions like familiarity and trust. And it usually works so powerfully without consumers knowing because it works mostly on the subconscious level. Associations are exploited everywhere. For example, a brand that was apparently ‘established long ago’ in most markets is inferred to mean ‘trusted and respected’, hence many companies try to make their brands seem like they have a heritage, via (sometimes fabricated or implied) backstories and imagery. The country of origin is usually inferred to mean something too, thus playing on (over-generalised) national stereotypes. Subjective knowledge (how much people self-report and think they know) of a brand is generally correlated with a preference for that brand.
We could say that this effect of branding and advertising on most people is irrational. For instance, just because there’s an artificially created emotional association with an irrelevant peripheral cue (e.g. the use of cute furry animals (ahem) or sexual imagery in an advert), it doesn’t mean the product we buy and use will therefore possess that quality (e.g. ‘cute toilet paper’ or a ‘sexually-arousing car’ anybody?!) Woof.
The same happens when people believe in celebrity endorsements or any other contrived associations. It doesn’t suddenly make that product or brand possess the qualities of that celebrity, but we will subconsciously think it will if we don’t consciously question these associations. How is a shaver ‘sporty’ if it just sits in the bathroom all of the time? Or how will it make the user more ‘sporty’ compared to another shaver? What does it mean to ‘buy a heritage’ when purchasing a product that was designed and made only recently by a new team of designers and assemblers, even if it bears a brand name that first existed many decades ago? A British brand, for instance, can be bought out and owned by a foreign company with only this superficial link left to its history.
In fact, why should brands matter at all if people don’t use brands per se, but products? When one is buying a product, one is only really buying what one is getting one’s hands physically on. Expectations do shape our experiences, but these expectations come from our own minds. We should therefore really review only the product, not the brand – but our unconscious mind cannot separate the two without blind testing.
Many brands do work hard to stick to their brand values, but many brands see branding as simply a way to carve a niche in the market for themselves or to command a premium price. The association with a quality doesn’t necessarily mean a possession of that quality, but this instinctive assumption fools our system one on a daily basis. Likewise, if someone merely makes scatological references at the dinner table, it can put some people off their food even though these mere words cannot change the physical nature of the food being consumed at all – but a mental association has been made.
A lot of ‘guilty by association’ cases receive a guilty verdict because mere association is a strong heuristic when we lack more concrete evidence. Correlation is fallaciously taken as causation. ‘Possession is nine-tenths of the law’ is another heuristic that places a great trust in associations/correlations i.e. ‘you have it so you must have done it’, without seeking further proof or critical reason.
Brands also sometimes employ ‘culture-jacking’ to try to associate themselves with good causes or social movements in a cynical rather than authentically-earned manner, such as by pretending to be environmentally friendly when they’re not, or making it seem like they’ll give a lot of the sales income from a product to charity but it works out to be actually less than 0.01% of these sales and they’d be far better off paying their full fair share of taxes instead. Associating a product or brand with a famous person, desirable/attractive thing or good cause, even when the correlation is meaningless or merely weak or superficial, works so well on most of us – and that’s because we typically decide based on emotional instincts rather than rational reason.
Organisations may attempt to re-brand themselves, not just to update and refresh but sometimes to try to wipe clean an unwanted or mediocre reputation – but behind the scenes they’re often really the same type of people with the same type of beliefs if you look beyond the propaganda exercise. Re-branding typically costs a lot of money, and if it’s the government doing it then we question why it had to apparently cost quite so much.
Choosing particular words in advertising or public relations (e.g. calling something as ‘surprise mechanics’ rather than loot boxes or simply gambling in video games) won’t change what things are but they’ll attempt to change our perception of what they are. Sometimes it’ll work but sometimes we’ll consciously cotton onto their attempts. One must also be cautious regarding how meaningful ‘award winners’ are because awards can be given by anyone (not all awards are equal), some product awards require payment to enter, and some award categories are so narrow that a product could be essentially the only product in its category!
People are employing the ‘substitution’ heuristic when they’re judging the brand of a new product when they’re really trying to judge the actual merits of that product in it’s own right. When we know of no better information about a product, we use a proxy judgement, and that tends to be what we think of the brand. So we rely on branding (and the ‘associated values’ of a brand) to inform our decisions when we don’t know enough about specific products in an intrinsic sense to judge them in their own rights. But that’s like judging political candidates based on their ages because we have no other basis to decide between them(!) We rely on brands to inform our purchases when we don’t know any better about what a product is made from, how it’s made, how it works, etc. thus what a brand ‘represents’ becomes a shortcut; but this shortcut is often unreliable. We cannot always rely on brand names (e.g. ‘high-end’ speaker brands yet their average products in laptops).
For many, brands are relied upon when we’re simply too lazy to do more product research (e.g. to read the ingredients and nutrition information on the back of packets). We should conduct in deeper product research to try to see beyond the brands and judge products or offers in their own rights. However, sometimes branding is still relied upon when an attribute cannot be easily researched (e.g. a product’s long-term reliability) or to break a decision deadlock. We may also be considering the after-sales service too.
Another factor is that brands are selected based on what consumers want to signal about themselves – consumers wish to associate themselves with the values that a brand is in turn associated with too. What people buy is used as social signalling – to link themselves with certain brands to signal their own wealth, status, tastes and ingroup identity, for instance. When shoppers place an expensive version of something in their shopping trolley, they want other shoppers to know (or think) they’re doing well for themselves. But with critical thinking again – a person carrying a ‘prestigious’ brand bag won’t suddenly become ‘prestigious’ him/herself. And not everyone who buys expensive brands is wealthy because things can be bought on credit (such a person could therefore instead be riddled with bad debt!) Many self-made people are conversely savvy spenders too.
Ancient instincts guide us but we’re living in a modern commercial world that has learnt how to emotionally exploit these subconscious and unconscious instincts – instincts that were borne from and were more optimal for simpler environments, where a good tool was a good tool and everyone knew what to look for in a good tool regardless of who made it. Few people know, or can know, how most modern products work nowadays to assess them on a fundamental design level. And it’s such an effective exploitation of our instincts that most of us, most of the time, are not even aware of it. And with ever more consumer data being gathered than before, the techniques continue to be refined for ever greater influence and effect.
However, if different customers are willing to pay more for essentially the same items if they have more premium-sounding brand names on the packaging then can we blame the manufacturers and retailers? That’s rational from their perspective, even if it’s not rational from the customers’ (the buyers’) or consumers’ (the users’) perspectives. It’s absolutely sensible to name a product you want to sell with a good name that conjures up desirable connotations, yet from a critical customer’s perspective – isn’t it gullible to be influenced by the mere name of something regardless of whether it’s considered a good or accurate name or not? (As an illustration, century eggs aren’t really a hundred years old – if you don’t find pickled eggs a problem then you shouldn’t in principle find those a problem either.) So on the one paw this is devious of the corporations, but on another this is clever of the corporations and it’s the fault of consumers for simply being so suggestible!
I’m always mainly on the side of consumers, so to be less suggestible to the power of branding, we need to consciously engage with ‘system two’ and critical thinking rather than fast and automatic ‘system one’. It’s not about whether something is branded or generic (or is on a price-reduced sale or not) per se – it’s about comparing what-you’re-getting-for-the-price with what-you’re-getting-for-the-price, regardless of the labels (or supposed discounts). Blind testing is the best way to fairly assess products on their own merits.
Woof. What’s your perspective on the power of brands? Are they great shortcuts when judging products or do they make us easily manipulable? Please share your thoughts by using the Twitter comment button below.