Syed Zain Al-Mahmood
What's in a brand? A lot, apparently. While brands represent different things to different people, everyone agrees that they affect the way consumers make choices. A strong brand can make a product succeed while a weak one can make it fail. Brands like Coca-cola, Intel, Nokia and Toyota not only promise a quality product but stir powerful emotions in us. The “feel-good factor” is an important aspect of buying brand products. We happily pay a premium for the satisfaction of owning a Ferrari, a Gucci, or a Rolex.
But what is this mystical hold that brands have over us? Why do we feel that afterglow after we have downed a glass of coke as compared to a non-brand brew? The answer could lie in the mysterious depths of our brain. Studies in monkeys have shown that given the choice of having a snack and the chance of gazing at pictures of the dominant alpha-monkey, the simians chose to look at the mug shots of the monkey. This proves that primates, like us, like celebrities. In this case the monkeys clearly identified with the all-powerful alpha male. There is a part of the monkey brain that strongly responds to celebrity status. Similar neurotransmitters have been discovered in human brains. So perhaps it is no surprise that we buy brands that reinforce our identity and self-esteem.
The emotional influence exerted by brand identity may run deeper than we realise. Scientific studies have shown that when given otherwise identical samples, people say food in brand-name wrappers tastes better. In other words, consumers respond in a subliminal way to names that they recognise. Research has shed light on people's tendency--when presented with a known object and an unknown one--to assign more value to the thing they've heard of, even if they don't know anything else about it. It's easy to imagine the evolutionary roots of a go-with-what-you-know principle. An unknown plant could be poisonous while a known one is unlikely to cause trouble. But these mental shortcuts suit certain modern problems as well. For example, studies have shown that people are able to pick which of two foreign cities is larger or who will win the US Open just by employing the assumption that if a name is recognised, it's likely to be more important.
Branding helps us negotiate the maze that is the modern market. In a 2007 study in California, scientists set up a tasting booth in a store in California. On some days they put out six kinds of jam, on others 24. When the booth had 24 types, it was mobbed by shoppers. There was more colour, more excitement. But the sales figures were an eye-opener. With six jams on show, 30% of customers bought a jar; when 24 were out, only 3% did. Buying a jam is hardly a complex decision, but when they were faced with a multitude of options and no clear “favourites” people tended to keep their money in their wallets!
All iconic brands have one thing in common: they offer unique emotional value in addition to the functional benefits. The benefits of emotional branding have long been recognised by marketers. “Human beings are powered by emotions, not by reason,” declared one brand promoter.
But is it all about emotional fixes? The world is in the grips of an economic recession, and from Dallas to Dhaka people are tightening the purse strings. Brands make us feel good. But when you're worrying about your next pay check, forking out money on a premium brand may not be quite so appetising. All around the world the high-end market is suffering. Bangladesh is just beginning to feel the pinch of the global economic downturn. Although consumer data is not easy to come by, it is clear flat and luxury car sales are down. Growth in the telecom sector has also slowed.
So, are brands and labels doomed in the “new age of austerity”? Not necessarily, say experts. Recent market surveys have shown that while brand names such as Citibank lost three quarters of their value, plain old Walmart rang up healthy profits. Recession or not, the fundamentals still apply.
In times of financial difficulty we, of course, look for value for money. Although designer clothing is expensive, the quality brands may offer greater functionality and durability. Frivolous fashion and throwaway pieces may suffer, but we will continue to invest in quality that will last. So, although the initial outlay may be a stretch for our pockets, a great quality bag that outlasts cheaper versions is not only practical, it will also make you feel special every time you carry it, giving you a little boost with its sheer luxury.
During recession people revert to basics, and try to keep it as simple as possible. Walmart moms stock up on groceries, but cut back on the luxuries. Brands have to adapt by offering outstanding value for money. When people buy a Toyota they know they will get an extremely reliable and economical runabout. Such brands will be much more durable in a recession than those that merely resort to “emotional branding.”
It was thought that high end luxury goods were immune from the effects of recession because the people who buy them are much more resistant to the effects of an economic downturn. But the recession this time has been the focus of intense media attention. This means we are much savvier than was the case in the '80s. We have seen President Obama and other world leaders repeatedly blast “greed” and “indiscipline” as the main culprits. Indeed, everyone seems to have a pet theory on how best to ride out the recession. Suddenly frugality is “in” and profligacy is “out”. The self-indulgence and conspicuous consumption of the last decade, fuelled by easy credit and celebrity culture, is over.
In the changed atmosphere, a good brand reputation could spell the difference between survival and bankruptcy. When times are hard, people prefer to do business with others whom they know and trust, even more than when the economy is strong. What people think of each brand and its promise are essential to that trust.
It is not just about price promotions. Many brands are trying to retain customer loyalty by becoming more environment friendly. General Electric's effort to ward off recession with its “Ecomagination” push is a prime example.
It is said that in the Great Depression of the 1930's, people were so short of cash, they often had to open “loan accounts” with local shops. That hard earned trust was considered a two way arrangement. In return for the credit during cash shortages, customer loyalty was nurtured that continued even when the economy improved. We have not quite got to that stage yet, but during hardship, we will remain loyal to the iconic brands -- brands that keep their word on quality and reliability.
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