The history of branding is a history of psychology. Of course brands, in the most basic sense, existed before psychology was even a field of study, much in the way that gravity existed before Newton. One smithy, John, would be better than another smithy in the village. You trust John’s workmanship. John just becomes a brand. At its most basic, a brand is literally ‘an identifying mark.’ So you know John has made it.
But somewhere along the way, this relationship between the brand of a workman — or company — and the actual quality of their product became muddled.
Consider the fake handbag — or ‘replica,’ as sellers call them. Put aside any ethical, legal or commercial quandaries you may have. Just think of the person buying one. They are, knowingly, buying a lower quality product. Why? The brand!
There is no clearer separation of brand and product than the knock-off. It’s brand as theatre, as status symbol. Pretending to own a designer product for the illusion of status might be understandable. That brands can retain their power when there is no one to impress, however, is harder to grasp: when you’re pouring yourself a drink, or eating your breakfast. Everyone thinks they are smarter than advertisers; everyone still trusts the big brands.
There’s an old, possibly apocryphal, story about Frederick the Great, who was King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786. During his reign, he imported the potato into Prussia, but no matter how much he lectured his people on their nutritional value, they still refused to eat them.
Frustrated, he decided to declare the potato a ‘royal vegetable’, and asked his soldiers to guard them — though, quite purposefully, not too well. As Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy Group UK, puts it: “If something is worth guarding, it's worth stealing.” And so, the peasants stole, ate and subsequently re-planted the potatoes. And Fredrick the Great got his way. All through re-branding.
Andy Warhol — the man who turned branding into art, or revealed that artists are just brands — once quipped that “America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest.”
There is something superficially, and perversely, democratic in branding. “The President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke,” Warhol continues, “and just think, you can drink Coke, too.” And if you can’t afford to drink Coke — or buy a Jaguar, or whatever brand you wish — you can aspire to. Brands are strange voids in which our wants, fears and aspirations mingle with the various associations and images that come from their advertising campaigns.
Marc De Swaan Arons, co-founder of the global marketing consultancy EffectiveBrands, argues that modern branding may have grown “out of the standardization of quality products for consumers in the middle of the 20th century, which required companies to find a new way to differentiate themselves from their competitors.”
He illustrates his point with the fact that supermarket shoppers often choose products from name brands rather than store brands, even though what he calls the “functional performance” of store-brand goods is often proven to be equal or superior.
A 2010 report from the US supports De Swaan Arons’ claims. In a blind head-to-head taste match-up of 21 store-brand products with their phenomenally more popular name brand counterparts, consumers were found to favour the supermarket’s own brands in three cases, and rate them equally in eleven. Overall, nutritional quality was found to be on par across the board as well.
In another study into how emotion can affect our decision making, the neuromarketing specialist Hilke Plassmann, psychologists John O'Doherty and Baba Shiv, and economist Antonio Rangel conducted a series of blind taste tests with wine. The tasters were scanned using an MRI, and when told that they were drinking more expensive wine, it was found that the areas of their brains associated with pleasantness showed heightened levels of activity — even if the wine they were drinking was in fact the cheap stuff.
So, why is it that despite extensive research telling us that the stamp of a well-known brand doesn’t necessarily equate to quality, so many consumers continue to place their trust in them? Joan Khoury, Chief Marketing Officer at LPL Financial, claims the “textbook explanation” for our loving of brands is that “there is an underlying, magical essence” that they share.
However, magic is a trick, a sleight of hand — one we enjoy by willingly suspending our critical faculties.
As language scientist Dr. Julie Sedivy explains, people are “more susceptible to mindless persuasion” when distracted, or expected to process information quickly. “You're not likely to be doing much thoughtful deliberation while zipping through the grocery store with a screaming toddler who's stuck a penny up his nose, or while fending off a telemarketer as you put the finishing touches on dinner,” she says.
To make truly objective assessments of our potential purchases, whether a bottle of wine, a hatchback or a leather satchel, we need access to as much reliable information as possible about our potential purchases, as well as enough time to reflect on their quality — and their quality alone.
In their 2014 book ‘Absolute Value: What Really Influences Customers in the Age of (Nearly) Perfect Information’, Stanford professor Itamar Simonson and bestselling author Emanuel Rosen argue that in the age of the internet, with so many easily accessible customer reviews and expert opinions online, brand names now have a significantly “reduced role as a quality signal.”
Fortunately, it is now easier than ever for us to look past the brands and make more informed purchasing decisions.