"Surely Vanderbilt, the smarty-pants school of the South, can beat Hah-vard, right?"
"And Connecticut will surely take Iowa State. Heck, they won the whole thing last year."
If you're like the millions of Americans who made their final decisions filling out their NCAA basketball tournament brackets this week, you participated in a nationwide demonstration of how brand strength can influence decision making, well beyond facts and rational thought. It's called March Madness.
This sometimes nerve-wracking exercise should serve as a great metaphor for how consumers make decisions when they choose between two brands. Despite the great advancements in brain research over the past few decades, too many marketers continue to cling to the conventional wisdom that consumers weigh all the facts before they make their purchase decisions.
And, like the hyper-studious consumer, some obsessive "bracketologists" with nothing else to do will systematically identify each team's BPI, free-throw percentage, rebound differential and assist-to-turnover ratio.
But the vast majority of people filling out a bracket will simply make decisions based on a team's "brand."
If you made selections on your own bracket, this experience should be a reminder that facts don't matter nearly as much as we'd like them to. Assembling, and then weighing each team's attributes is not only a time-consuming process, it can even confuse and stifle a final decision as the competing statistics and attributes make a final evaluation almost impossible.
Just like your bracket selections, consumers don't really want to have to evaluate every product they buy in a clinical, analytical, rational way. They have lives to lead and are simply looking for shortcuts or clues that will help them make decisions quickly and effortlessly -- and with some level of confidence. That's what brands do for consumers. Effective brands work beyond facts and reason to tip the scales in their favor, even when the "facts" may say otherwise.
One of the simplest attractions of a brand is familiarity -- a "name brand." We think of name brands as those that have been around awhile: Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and Indiana. Just like a product with a deep heritage and large media budgets, we often give these teams the benefit of the doubt when we're picking, because we remember watching them through the years. Just as when you buy shampoo or razors, a name-brand basketball team is typically considered a safe pick.
Last year, Virginia Commonwealth was not a safe pick and was selected by very few fans prior to the tournament. In fact, they barely got in. VCU was clearly not a name brand, but it had an amazing run to the Final Four as it outperformed a number of name brands, including Georgetown and Kansas. That run has made Virginia Commonwealth much more familiar this time around, and they've been selected by a higher percentage by fans this year -- despite the reality that the "facts" probably don't support it. We'll see how VCU fares (they've already upset Wichita State) and whether their brand strength becomes stronger or weaker by the end of the tournament.
This year, The New York Times acknowledged this branding phenomenon by creating a "Blindfold Bracket" contest, encouraging a more unbiased approach to selecting teams. The system replaced the school names with random animal names and simply listed the basketball strengths and weaknesses. The idea here is that it eliminated "brand" perception, by encouraging participants to make judgments based on a simple set of facts. Imagine going to BestBuy.com and selecting a flat-screen television based on the comparisons of the specifications, without the benefit of the brand names.
This is not to say that facts and attributes have no place in consumers' decision-making. Consistent performance is what allows a brand to survive over time. If VCU continues to win, their brand strength will improve just like a highly performing product that generates repeat purchases.
In NCAA basketball as in consumer products, while facts can support a brand message, they don't have to be the message. A single, well articulated feature can create a shortcut for consumers, helping people understand what a particular brand stands for. A long list of features may have the opposite effect, filling the consumer with more information than he or she is willing, or able to process.
An exhaustive list of your product's attributes will feel more like the pages of basketball statistics that gave me more information than I could process, making it more difficult to choose who would win it all this year. Instead, I ignored all of the facts and just defaulted to one of the tried and true name brands.
And that name brand this year is Ohio State. I just hope they're not out by the time you read this.