What makes us buy what we buy? What inspires us to fork out for that TV; that tablet; that lemon-scented hand moisturiser? Quality of product, most would say.
But if you look at the world’s top brands, you might find a different story. Apple may be the world’s leading smartphone producer, but the iPhone 6S possesses inferior specs to its main competitor, the Samsung Galaxy S7. While Google may boast some advantages over Yahoo, it has pulled away so far in the last decade that the two are barely comparable – despite the fact that both offer a near-identical service.
So if product isn’t king, what is? The answer, of course, is brand.
Product and brand: the difference
Products are items or services that are used by the consumer; they are the sellable result of the company’s innovative efforts. Brand is the identity which differentiates that product from similar items on the market. The main differences? While products can be replaced and copied, brands are permanent and unique. And whereas a product might offer you something you need, a brand provides something you want.
Take our earlier example: the Apple iPhone 6S. In this day and age, people need smartphones. They need to take calls, send emails and access social media on the go, all the time. Any smartphone offers this service, the Galaxy S7 at a possibly higher level. But the 6S is the market leader because it also provides something people want – the Apple design, interface and experience. Thus, in a market where consumers are faced with several near-identical products per purchase, brand might be the primary deciding factor.
This school of thought becomes particularly relevant when we consider that, most of the time, there is no difference between brand and non-brand products besides price. When products are almost exactly the same, what differential is left? Branding, branding and branding.
The power of brand
We all have a tendency to buy products with which we are familiar. If you use Colgate toothpaste, you are likely to buy Colgate toothpaste next time you pop down to Tesco. If you enjoy Oreos biscuits, Oreos are what you will spend your money on – not their competitors. This behaviour is called brand loyalty, and hinges on the human instinct to stick with the known over the unknown. And it’s powerful – to the extent that advert film Saatchi & Saatchi have labelled this attachment “loyalty beyond reason.”
So, while most consumers would state that product comparison is the basis of their buying choices, many marketers would consider brand the more decisive factor. Those companies which can flog their products most quickly and most uniquely to the client are those who will score the most sells. In the brand-centric school of thought, it’s more important to be first – and to be different – than it is to be better.
There are those who argue that, in the digital era, customers are becoming more rational and less brand-dependent. Many now base purchases upon product performance alone, aware of the power of brand manipulations. But this minor shift cannot challenge the continued reign of power-branding.
Recently, we’ve witnessed a new advertising technique emerge. Earlier this year, both Coca-Cola and Hershey’s switched to a ‘masterbrand’ strategy. Instead of billing separate products with separate ads, we are now urged to partake of the brand’s whole family. So it’s not “Eat Hershey’s Syrup!”, but “Eat Hershey’s – any Hershey’s!”
What’s the theory? Within any large brand, products multiply, often into niche channels. Coke has several sub-categories, aimed at increasingly specific markets: Coke (for everyone); Diet Coke (for women); Coke Zero (for men); and Coke Life (for natural-only eaters). With the benefit of master-branding, more niche products find a pre-established audience, overcoming the problems of a reduced consumer base.
Similarly, in a world where exposure to consumer has become increasingly direct, masterbranding enables pre-established companies to ‘out-brand’ new competitors. It may be easy for a diet energy drink to trump Red Bull Zero on its own, but not the entire Red Bull brand. Masterbranding ensures that the success of a popular, base product is extended to new releases, strengthening the brand’s profile as a whole.
So if you find yourself heading up a huge, multi-product-driven corporation anytime soon, you know what to do. Masterbrand it, and watch the loyalists pour in. And if your product’s that little bit inferior? No problem; let your logo do the talking.
Susanna Quirke writes for Inspiring Interns, a graduate recruitment agency which specialises in sourcing candidates for internships and giving out graduate careers advice. To hire graduates or browse internship London, visit our website.