My son and I were in the grocery store the other day looking for cereal. At 15, he’s a pretty savvy shopper, so he immediately directed my attention to a display of generic, bagged cereal instead of the brand name boxes.
On that particular trip we ended up buying Rice Chex, the real branded one, because that’s what he wanted and there was no generic equivalent. That being said, my experience with cereal is that the generics are usually just as tasty as the brand name.
But how often is that the case? I’m going to invite criticism from dedicated generic goods buyers by stating that the brand name is often, perhaps usually, worth the extra money.
There seems to be a subtle bias in some circles against brand name products, as if the companies that own the brands are somehow trying to rip off consumers. “I’m too smart to believe all that advertising,” these people sniff.
Well here’s the deal: Rarely does a major company — or a small company, for that matter — invest in advertising or other marketing for a product that can’t back it up. That’s because companies don’t want you to buy their product once; they want you to love their product, tell your friends about it, and buy it again and again. So they invest a lot of money developing a solid product before they invest in marketing. Advertising a product that doesn’t live up to the hype is a waste of marketing dollars.
Yes, sometimes the brand name disappoints. Everyone has a story about a brand name product that broke down — we have a Bosch oven that drives us crazy with its erratic performance — but in general the brand names deliver.
And generic items do disappoint, in my experience, much more frequently. That can of generic corn I bought the other day? The kernels were smaller, there seemed to be more water, and overall the flavor was less satisfying than the Green Giant brand. Yes, I saved a quarter, but it wasn’t worth it.
Why do we drink way more Coke than store-brand cola? Admit it, it’s because the former tastes better than the latter, in most people’s estimation. Yes, Coke’s non-stop advertising plays a big role, but the store-brand swill is usually positioned in the same aisle as Coke, so if it tasted better, you would buy it. But most people decide that the premium they pay for Coke is worth it.
The same goes for many other brands. The store-brand steak is often decent, but the Black Angus is consistently so. Off-brand sneakers from Pay-Less Shoes look fine, but if I’m running a marathon, I’m wearing Nikes. When we replaced the windows on the second floor of our hundred-year-old house, we went with Andersen; the previous owners went off-brand on the first floor, and those clunky windows still drive us crazy.
I’m going to go out further on my figurative limb and state that brand names play a bigger role in boosting consumer confidence today than at any time in the past, mainly because of the internet. Here’s why: In two hours I could launch a website promoting my own “brand,” let’s say Ed’s Dog Food. With the web templates available these days, my website would look pretty cool, maybe even as cool as a real brand-name dog food website.
But does the ability to create a slick website mean I know anything about dog food? Nope. A few daring consumers might be fooled by my site, but wouldn’t you rather buy your dog food from a company with an established brand? If you care about your dog, you would!
Some product categories are different. Produce, for example, rarely has a brand connection that matters — the head of lettuce sitting by itself tastes the same as the bag of shredded lettuce from Dole. I’m not particularly fashion conscious, as my wife will readily attest, so I routinely buy unbranded t-shirts, socks, and such (though not jeans). But in most cases, the brand name product is better.
There is a close connection between advertising and brands, and this, I suspect, makes some people suspicious. “If Tide was really better than other brands, they wouldn’t have to advertise!” the line goes. But this may be putting the cart before the horse — Tide was a solid product, so Proctor & Gamble promoted it. If it wasn’t a solid product, they would not have invested in the advertising to build the brand.
So the next time you’re in the grocery store and that box of Oreos beckons, go ahead and pay the extra 50 cents rather than buying the store-brand “chocolate cookie sandwiches.” Your taste buds will thank you!