Don't Improve Your Product -- Improve Your Brand, Instead

An Exceptional Product Does Not Always Equate to a Great Customer Experience

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Do you encounter the product engineer who scoffs at the word "brand" -- who thinks that designing and building the product you're selling is the "real" work? This guy views brand strategy as a useless exercise that sucks up resources that could be used for product development, believing that a great product will sell itself. His simple equation: An exceptional product equals a great experience. It's admirable, but without a strong brand, the actual product experience will suffer.

Taste happens in the brain

Back in college, my friend would perform a funny little sideshow, serving his roommate unsweetened Kool-Aid, unbearably spicy food and nauseating recipes, demonstrating that this guy couldn't taste the difference between mild or spicy, sweet or salty, delicious or putrid. Later, I learned this was a dark joke, as the roommate had lost his sense of taste after hitting his head jumping off their porch. Like many discoveries in neuroscience revealed through damage or impairment, this was a crude demonstration that the perception of taste actually occurs in the brain.

Fortunately for marketers, a person doesn't have to hit his head to have his sense of taste altered. Other factors -- albeit, much more subtle -- can also have a significant effect.

Context affects experience

If you're old enough, you might remember when Folgers Coffee served unsuspecting patrons its instant coffee in a ritzy New Orleans restaurant. If not, you may be familiar with Pizza Hut's similar tactic of surreptitiously serving its pasta to foodies at a posh Italian restaurant. And more recently, McDonald's featured another rendition of "our new offering is so good that unsuspecting customers won't be able to tell the difference between our food and the good stuff," by serving its Buttermilk Crispy Chicken sandwiches from an "authentic" food truck.

On the face of it, this tactic might sound like a reasonable way to launch a new product. But, aren't these brands really saying, "Our brand isn't strong enough to make you believe our new product tastes good. In fact, if you think it's ours, you might not like it. We have to trick you into trying -- and liking -- it."

This tactic of "fooling" customers isn't limited to restaurants. Chevy's relaunch of its Malibu features "real people, not actors" evaluating an unbranded version of its newest model at a swanky, modern, upscale home in the mountains. And, while this Malibu is better-looking than previous versions, the trappings of the home and locale would certainly affect the consumer's perception, leading them to believe that it's a more expensive car, like a BMW, Lexus or Acura. To prove my point, the last quote heard in the original commercial is one guy saying, "I'll take the house."

These campaigns misunderstand -- if not misrepresent -- how people actually perceive and experience products, starting with the assumption that people do it objectively. They don't.

Regardless of the category, a consumer's product experience -- from food to cars to clothes and even smartphones -- involves more than the physical product in a vacuum. A combination of factors, like environment, price -- and yes, brand -- combine with sensory inputs, emotions, memories and facts within the consumer's brain -- in many cases subconsciously -- to "create" the experience. Just like the upscale home altered perceptions of the Malibu, the fancy restaurant set expectations that altered the enjoyment of Pizza Hut's pasta, actually making it taste better.

Brand affects actual enjoyment

A Stanford University research study demonstrated the power of brand on a product's taste when it studied the effect of advertising on children. When three- to five-year-olds tasted foods like milk, carrots and apple juice in both unlabeled packaging and in McDonald's packaging, they reported that the food packaged with the Golden Arches tasted better than the same, unlabeled food. A Boston Globe piece about the study noted, "Advertising can trick the taste buds," which is an unsophisticated way of describing this phenomenon. A Stanford researcher more accurately noted that the kids' experience was "physically altered by the branding."

Understanding how people actually experience products helps us see that enhanced product development may not be the answer to attracting customers. In fact, the product itself might not be the solution at all. Instead, consider enhancing the consumer experience by addressing everything around the product. Find out whether anyone knows what your brand stands for. Is it priced right? Is your store always clean? How are your customers treated? All of these factors have the power to literally affect how a consumer experiences your product.

And finally, keep in mind that your products should reinforce the brand and its promise, not the other way around. Rather than tricking people into trying your product, build a brand that compels people to not only seek your products, but makes them "taste" even better -- whether you change the recipe or not.

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