How To Be Manipulated By a Brand

There's an important tautology in the world of consumer branding that I was never able to put into words until now:

If you know a brand is trying to manipulate you, it completely loses its ability to manipulate you.

I know, I know. On some level it sounds obvious. But there's more than meets the eye to this sentence. What it really means is this: you can only be manipulated by branding if you're totally unaware that you're being manipulated. Or if you believe you're immune.

And yet almost all consumers sincerely believe they are immune to branding. I mean, it's kind of intellectually insulting to think otherwise, isn't it? Nobody wants to walk around thinking they're easy to manipulate.

And that's exactly why product branding works so well.

"I really like this brand, it's much higher quality." Sure it is. Have you actually blind-tested it against other brands to see for sure?

"I don't get trapped by all that branding and advertising stuff. I think for myself." No. That's your brain's ego-protection software kicking in. There are entire market segments designed specifically for independent thinkers like you.

"Look, I'm totally anti-consumerist. What I really care about is the environment." Guess what? There are brands for you too.

We talk often at Casual Kitchen how branding can mislead consumers into overpaying for products that don't deserve higher prices. Furthermore, branding is costly, and those extra costs are borne entirely by consumers--in the form of those same higher prices that we think make that brand worth it. It's incredibly circular logic that's incredibly profitable for the companies that sell branded products to us.

We all think we're immune to branding, but we're not. And we never will be.

And that's the key. Knowing you're not immune to branding actually empowers you as a consumer. It makes you more aware of the various forces acting on you when making a purchase.

And that makes you tougher to manipulate.

Related Posts:
The Do-Nothing Brand
Where Going Generic Works... And Where It Doesn't
Ten Thoughts On the Value of Brands
Still Sixteen Ounces
Brand Disloyalty

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sydney said...

I'm sort of conflicted on paying more products. On one hand, I don't believe in paying for all that marketing that goes into trying to convince to buy the product. On the other hand, I wonder why Dollar Stores exist. Does that product really cost a dollar? How much was spent to make that product? Was it made oversees, what about the people to assembled it, store employees' salaries, shipping, cost of extracting and refining raw materials? Sometimes I wonder if we as Americans are paying the true cost of things and if that money is being appropriately distributed.

Diane said...

Frankly, I don't really mind. I do believe some brands are better for some things. I think my Mac is far better than any windows-based PC I've ever used - certainly I waste much less time fixing and rebuilding corrupted hard drives since making the switch. And, having tasted many cream cheeses out there I think Philly is the best. Same for Best Foods Mayo. I've tried many, many laundry detergents, and many either didn't clean well or gave me a rash, so I'm loyal to Tide. I make conscious choices to pay more for these items and am happy to do so, manipulated or not.

Other things - like clothing - I simply don't care about.

Elizabeth @Mango_Queen said...

I love this post! If you don't mind I'll keep RT'ng it again and again. Very helpful and insightful to everyone especially these days! Cheers & more power!

chacha1 said...

Like Diane, I do think some brands are better than others. Cascade dishwasher powder, for example, never clumps up in the box. The more "environmentally sound" brand I got recently has to be beaten against the counter to get it moving, and even then comes out in chunks. And generic imitation marshmallow cereal is no substitute for Lucky Charms. So, you know. :-)

I don't think I'm immune to food branding, but I think the fact that I watch very little network television does help. The stuff that's advertised on "my" channels (BBC America, HGTV, Food Network, Ovation) is typically not stuff you buy at a supermarket.

Frankly, most Americans would benefit from not watching network television between 6 am and 8 pm. But that's a whole 'nother can of worms.

Matt @ SpoonMatters said...

I was thinking about this last week while talking with my mom, who only buys name-brand over-the-counter medicines. I was trying to get her to look at the ingredients and compare with the store brands, as I usually find a significant savings in that area, but thanks to a lifetime of branding the concept of store brands never enters her mind.

I notice that the brands most people are loyal to are often the most expensive items in a grocery store (i.e. paper products, cleaning supplies). It takes some mental persistance to break the bias towards brand name products.

This post made me think of a funny comic, though: Talk about taking the cost of brand promotion out of the mix!

Daniel said...

Good comments right out of the gate. A few reactions:

Diane: I hear you, and I consider some brands superior too. I'm merely asking readers if they are certain of the superiority--and of the value of that superiority. Have they actually tested "their" brand against other products? Is their brand's superiority commensurate with its price premium?

Chacha: I could not agree more. TV is the predominant force behind why our culture is conditioned flawlessly for branding.

Matt: Great point on OTC meds, and your thought holds true for prescription meds too. Our entire drug regulatory system is set up to make sure the molecular formations of the generic meds are exactly identical to the patented meds.

PS: That comic is awesome. It is funny how the generic products actually DO stand out on the shelves. Hilarious.


Daniel said...

One more thought: I'd also ask readers to consider the idea of substitution in a broader sense.

To co-opt Chacha's example: Instead of thinking of generic Lucky Charms as a (lousy) substitute for $5 an eleven-ounce box *actual* Lucky Charms, perhaps as a consumer I'm better off finding a totally different breakfast food that's healthier, superior... and doesn't require me as a consumer to pay for branding costs.

Bulk oats, eggs, fresh in-season fruit all come to mind as possible breakfast substitutions that are far more consumer friendly and lower-priced. None of these items is branded, and their lower costs reflect this.


chacha1 said...

Since you mention it ... !

In my own defense: Lucky Charms are not actually breakfast for me. :-) They are a comfort food that I buy about once every 7-8 months.

My usual breakfast, which coincidentally is right in front of me as we speak, is store-brand rolled oats with a little dry milk powder, a tiny bit of raw sugar, ground walnuts, dried cranberries, and a hefty dash of cinnamon.

I assemble it at home, cook it at the office (one minute 15 seconds), dump on two Mini-Moos, and I'm good.

Ronda said...

I'm sitting here trying to decide if I am at all manipulated by brands. :) I really don't think I am, but maybe I'm kidding myself? I buy mostly store brand stuff, and even with sales or coupons, I double-check to see which is least expensive. When I find that the cheapest isn't as good, I occasionally step up a notch. I've been trying to think when I actually buy brand names, and the only thing that comes to mind is cleaners--laundry detergent and dish soap-- since there truly is a difference in performance there. Other than that, I honestly can't think of a thing. I can tell a difference in some breakfast cereals, but they are so prohibitively expensive anyway that I simply don't ever buy the brand-name ones. What my kids don't know, they won't miss, right? ;) In our part of the country, the easiest way is to just shop at Aldi--they usually don't even carry name brands, and they are far cheaper than anywhere else.

Tragic Sandwich said...

Interesting thing about that xkcd comic: That's exactly what generic (not store-brand--generic) products looked like in the 1980s. And it turns out that people actually and intentionally want a little packaging.