Do We Buy Brands or Products Today?

IMG_0510Recently, I read a statement by a marketing professional who stated bluntly that people today buy brands, not products.

This pronouncement seemed wrong, like wishful thinking, a little ahead of itself. Regardless of what that writer and other marketers will tell you, people still mostly buy products, not brands.

When people buy brands, they do so because they relate to the company in a way that goes beyond just the function of its product. Cars made by both BMW and Toyota will get people where they want to go, for example. But some of us buy BMWs because this brand makes us feel good about ourselves, perhaps as a reward for years of hard work or for landing a coveted first job. Others buy Nike sneakers because we share this brand’s commitment to achieving excellent athletic performance.

On the other hand, people buy products, regardless of who makes them, because of their function. They provide what the buyer wants. Post Raisin Bran tastes good today, but maybe tomorrow, Kellogg’s Raisin Bran might taste better or might be on sale when the consumer is at the store. Pepsi and Coke might be interchangeable, depending what’s available at the restaurant or from the vending machine. Consumers subscribe to Comcast because it’s the only cable service available in their community, but they wouldn’t really care if AT&T were their cable provider.

Marketers are correct in saying that people are loyal to brands. But, it seems to me, their lack of loyalty to products is what’s really behind most of their purchases.

Some people may always buy Toms shoes because they are committed to the brand’s philanthropic goal of giving one free pair of shoes to someone who needs them every time the company sells a pair. But I believe most people, when they need a pair of shoes, buy the pair that looks best and feels best within their budget. They may occasionally buy Tom’s shoes, but only if the shoes meet these criteria.

Except for one period in the ’90s, I have bought Apple computers ever since my first Mac in 1985. I’m a pleased supporter of Apple, now buying iPhones, iPads and iPods exclusively. I believe in the company and its approach to building products, as Steve Jobs expressed in Walter Isaason’s biography of the Apple co-founder and former CEO:

When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.

Clearly, I buy the Apple brand, not just Apple products.

But Apple is about as far as I go in buying brands. And I don’t think I’m alone. It seems to me that most people still buy products today, buying brands only in a limited number of categories, perhaps only makeup or designer clothes. Certainly we don’t always—or even mostly—buy brands, regardless of what the wishful marketers may want to believe.

We buy products—not brands—because most companies’ storytelling doesn’t create for us an emotional attachment that goes beyond their products’ functionality. The narratives may honestly represent the beliefs and philosophies held by these companies, but we’re not relating to them, and we are not forming strong relationships with them. As a result, most companies still remain product makers, rather than brands that we feel represent us and our lifestyles.

(Note: I used the quote from Steve Jobs in an earlier blog “The Purity of Simplicity” on craftsmanship, which you may read here.)  

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