Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Taking brands personally

I was reading an Economist book note a few weeks ago about a new branding book from Kellogg. Is a brand, as John Sherry suggests in it, “a mental shortcut that discourages rational thought, an infusing with the spirit of the maker?”

I think the answer is only sometimes. No doubt, some brands are excessively fetishized. But there's more to it than that, I think. I think brands help to simplify the process of being a consumer, and are therefore a very rational strategy in reducing the complexity of choice-making. (Thinking here of Barry Schwartz's Paradox of Choice, Also reviewed on this here site.)

My previous review on Married to the Brand (see previous post) made me think about the brands with which I'm heavily "engaged." As I thought through the list, it's clear that when it comes to consumer goods and retail, I respond to attention to design and quality: Apple trumps Dell & Microsoft. Target beats Walmart. Sony beats the field for cameras, camcorders, and TV's. Nintendo beats Sony and Microsoft on game systems. Eddie Bauer khakis always fit me better and last longer than Dockers do. In each case, attention to details of performance-related design and my experience of use lead me to put a finger on the scale for each of these companies when faced with a choice about where to shop or what to buy. I'm somewhat price sensitive, but I will pay a modest premium for items or services where the provider/maker has paid attention to details that will improve my experience.

I'm much less brand-attached in the grocery store. I suppose I'll pay a premium for Heinz ketchup. I'm much more attached to a particular grocery store: Trader Joe's. They have an interesting, high-quality selection of food at incredible prices. The stores are smaller, limiting the amount of time I have to spend shopping. And the staff is so happy to help it ought to be illegal. Shopping there saves me money, time, and stress. I'm locked in.

Then there's a class of brands that interact with my sense of identity. In addition to the very real ways that Swarthmore College affected and continues to affect my life, the notion of Swarthmore is deeply tied up with my sense of identity. I'm a Hershey boy, and so I'm a Hershey products buyer. I get my coffee from the same coffee bar every morning. Not because the coffee is cheaper or better there, but because Katy and Michelle call me "E." ("Norm!") and make me feel like I belong there.

Whaddya think? What are your brands? Think your attachment is rational or not?


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