Is brand value a cop out for poor product?

Alan Mitchell has written a couple of provoking pieces in Marketing Magazine where he puts forward an accusation against the marketing community for abandoning product superiority as our basis for communication. In his view, we found ourselves in the uncomfortable position of chasing our tails in a battle of incremental product improvement, which would never end. So instead we’ve fallen back on differentiating based on brand instead of product. We’ve used a lazy trick of substituting emotional brand value for real innovation.

He makes a strong case. But I can’t help feeling that he’s neglecting something really important in all this. Which is the idea that the brand brings a genuine value, in and of itself.

His view of brands seems to position them only as a shortcut for what people can expect from the product. So a Volkswagen car is reliable or Johnson’s baby products are gentle.

And this is absolutely how brands are used – as heuristics in a complex shopping landscape. We assume that branded goods are better. We pick a set of brands we like and shop within that, as our easy default.

But that’s not the only role that brands play. Alongside giving our lazy brains a quick solution, they come laden with all sorts of meaning and stories, which have a real value, outside of the products themselves.

Our perception of the product, changes how we experience consuming or using it.

I’ve used the wine example before on this blog to illustrate this point. If we think the wine we are drinking is a highly expensive and well crafted vintage, instead of a bog standard bottle of red from Tesco, it has a demonstrable effect on our enjoyment of that wine. We don’t just think we enjoy it more, we actually feel more pleasure drinking it. fMRI brain scans will show higher levels of neural activity in the pleasure centres of our brain when we’re consuming the “better” wine.

Stories aren’t a cheap trick. They have a real value.

In fact, perhaps we can’t always assume that the main value of what we buy is in the product part as opposed to the brand part. There are some categories, where the brand value or the story, the experience, is a far larger part of what we’re getting than the tangible item. We’re getting a mood boost, or a sense of reassurance, or expressing our personality, or gaining status.

There’s nothing dishonest about wrapping physical products up in a deeper emotional meaning. We have lots of stuff already. Whereas we can never have too many stories

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  1. Nice food for thought, Neasa. I agree, but too many companies have thought only lazily about brands, and can’t articulate a story that’s differnt from their rivals’ own stories. A point I’m getting interested in is whether share of voice alone is sufficient for low engagement goods, as it’s hard to conceive of how stories (other than your own personal memories of the product as a child, for example) could tap into your way of construing that product. Disruptive advertising might work here, but that’s not really a story, it’s a tactic to alter attention.

    • Fidelma Maguire
    • February 26th, 2012

    I agree Neasa. We don’t need more stuff. But we do need dreams! fidelma

      • Neasa Cunniffe
      • February 26th, 2012

      Never too many dream or sources of inspiration 🙂

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