Consumers: Pay For Your Own Brainwashing! (Or Don't)

"I don't know. I mean, I just can't really tell much of a difference."

Readers: This was Laura's declaration recently as she was using a cotton swab she'd fished out of our medicine drawer. I'd bought some Q-Tips brand cotton swabs the day before, and she accidentally mixed them up with a pile of lower-cost store brand swabs already sitting in there.

Without really thinking about it, she'd basically created a fairly robust blind test of the two brands. And she was unable to tell them apart.

Clearly, now, there's zero reason for us to pay extra for the higher-priced Q-Tips brand.

What's embarrassing about this (and kind of hypocritical too, if you're familiar with all I've written here on consumer empowerment) is how we here at Casual Kitchen just assumed Q-Tips were better. But why? What were our reasons?

Remember, consumer products companies spend years--and billions of dollars--on advertising to turn their brands into household names. Over time, these brands stick in your mind, as if they're part of the atmosphere. They seem familiar, comfortable and better. After all, you "know" these products, right? Thus it seems somehow reasonable that these comfortably familiar brands cost more.

It was basically that, plus years of habit-based purchases, that gave us our reason for assuming Q-Tips were better. Not much of a reason, to be honest. Especially since we were paying almost double the price of the store band swabs.

Needless to say, consumer product companies love it when consumers pay extra for their products using this kind of "reasoning."

But here's the problem, and it's a doozy: By definition, all branding and advertising costs are passed through to the consumer. Think about this for a second, because it brings us to a incredibly painful conclusion: If we believe a heavily advertised brand is somehow better, it's because we paid them to persuade us!

It's like paying for your own brainwashing.

Sure, some branded products actually are better. You might love Q-Tips more than life itself, and that's cool. But at least test the assumption. Don't just eat the extra cost and let your assumptions separate you from your money.

Furthermore, don't forget: we're in the modern era of do-nothing brands, where the brand owner may not even make the product but rather contracts it out to a third-party manufacturer. Does a "familiar" brand have real value if the only thing the company does is slap a sticker on the product... and charge you extra for the privilege?

A truly empowered consumer won't buy higher-cost branded products just because she's always bought them. She won't buy them just because she has a "feeling" that they're better. After all, how did that "feeling" get there? Through millions of dollars of advertising and marketing, done over years, paid for by you. You!

Make the companies that sell stuff compete for your money, not extract it from you by default. This is a central concept--if not the central concept--of consumer empowerment.

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Owlhaven said...

Love this post. Down with brand loyalty, except when the added cost honestly imparts greater value.

Anonymous said...

I buy mine at Costco - I'm not sure if there is actual savings on buying them in bulk, but I prefer to buy them every once in a while in bulk rather than regularly in the store. (My husband recently purchased generic ones - not sure why, he did not consult me.)

Either way, thanks for reminding me to make sure that my travel box is full before our vacation. I don't want to "need" to buy them while on vacation.

MaryMcK. said...

Thanks for this reminder! It has been years since we tested cotton swabs, and we only tested one store brand against Q-Tips and found it inferior (not as much cotton as the brand name). We'll have to broaden our sample. For the most part, anything we buy in a package is under review and can be displaced at any time by a different brand (butter is one product where the store brands usually fail when compared to Land o' Lakes though).

homefire said...

This made me laugh! I am so NOT brand-loyal that it's laughable, but I recently grabbed some swabs at Dollar General down the street because we were out and I wanted them quickly. Those things were HORRIBLE! They bent at the slightest pressure, so were worthless for anything but the lightest of feather-brushing type jobs. So when I went to Meijer and bought more, I definitely overreacted. I looked at the Q-tips, which were about a dollar more for 500, and decided that it was VERY much worth it to know for sure that they wouldn't fold up like a fan when you tried to use them! :D I suspect I will return to generics at some point, but I will definitely steer clear of the DG brand!