I really like Tide. Why can't I use it?

Dear CK:
I read with interest some of your posts on branding, in particular the post on the tuna recall and your other posts about how there's no difference between branded and store-brand products. But some brands actually are better than the generic brand. With laundry detergent for example, I really like Tide. Why can't I use it?

This reader is absolutely correct: some brands are better. Some products are superior to others. And, by definition, you're going to like some brands and some products better than others, just based on your arbitrary personal preferences.

So go ahead and buy those brands! I have no intention of telling readers to buy products they don't like, nor would I tell readers not to buy products they do like. Buy what you want and what you like. That's what consumer empowerment is all about.

That said, I wrote my various articles on brands to give readers a framework to think about the central nature of branding. What it is, how it affects our perceptions of a product, and how we gradually perceive a brand as "better," thanks to certain cues and cognitive shortcuts companies use to impact our perceptions.

In all of my work on this topic, one point I'm consistently trying to make is this: often we unconsciously assume a brand is better--and pay a significant price premium for it too--when it may not be any better at all.

And in the (increasingly common) worst-case scenario, there may be zero difference between a branded product and the store-brand or generic product. Remember the takeaway from the Bumblebee Tuna controversy: identical commodity tuna is canned and sold under various labels by the same third-party food manufacturer. Which means the branding of this particular product amounts to nothing more than a paper label and a 30-50% higher price!

This is why it's worth it on occasion to blind test other brands against store- or generic brands. Often they're not just equivalent, but identical. The only difference is that you pay more for no reason.

Sure, you can pay up for Tide if you confidently believe you receive appropriate value for Tide's price premium over comparable products.* But don't trust blindly. Once in a while, verify.

In the modern era of third-party manufacturing and branding by perception manipulation, why would anybody automatically "trust" a brand?

Stay tuned! Next week, I've got a big surprise for readers interested in learning more about branding, advertising and the various psychological techniques of the consumer products industry.

* A final footnote: Interestingly, here at CK, we at one point had a view similar to this reader regarding Tide, yet we never tested this view by trying another brand. We simply liked Tide, and didn't really pay much attention to what it cost relative to other products. We just bought it without thinking. And as a result, we blindly and habitually paid substantially higher prices for Tide for many years before discovering, to our dismay, that we could not tell any difference whatsoever between it and other laundry products, some of which sold for less than half of Tide’s premium price. Consumer products companies love--love!--consumers like this.

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