The Surprising Power of Brands

We tend to assume that we have confidence in ourselves based on who we are and what we have done  – or we don’t.  We think we feel good about ourselves consistently – or we don’t.  But it turns out that these internal beliefs are actually quite volatile.  They change in response to circumstances – and the brands we use.

A recent study reported in The Wall Street Journal showed that there were measurable differences in how subjects felt about themselves depending on what brands they used.  For example, students who composed resumes on iMacs expected to make significantly more from the jobs they were applying for than those who used generic peripherals.

The Journal concluded:  “the link between what we consume and what we think of ourselves remains lodged in our brains.”  (See, “Can Buying Generic Lower Your Self-Esteem?”)

I doubt that marketers and branding consultants are surprised.  Given the vast amounts of money spent by corporations crafting and protecting their brands, they seem to be pretty sure their money is well spent.  It is we, the consumers, who are likely to be surprised by the hidden power that brands exert over our choices.

We don’t like to think of ourselves being as malleable as we are or so easily manipulated.  Perhaps we have persuaded ourselves that well-known brands are made better or are more reliable.  In some cases, that may be so, but in the case of these experiments that was irrelevant.  The computers and other products were used temporarily and only in the research lab.  And many generics are notably cheaper and almost indistinguishable from their higher priced competitors.

But we shouldn’t be surprised.  Yes, it makes a big difference to our general levels of self esteem if we were loved as children and treated with respect, and it matters if we are depressed or not.  But research into the unconscious has shown that self-esteem has to be continually sustained throughout our lives, by the friends we have, the successes we enjoy, the respect we earn.  It is not fixed.

So, faced with the power of brands, what should we do about the volatility of self-esteem they induce in us?  Is there any way we can fight back against the unconscious influence of marketing campaigns and powerful advertising budgets?

We can start by being more mindful of the unconscious power of brands – and the arguments against their superiority.  Try not to get suckered into false beliefs.  Maybe the pricey brand is more attractive or better built.  But what do you actually know?

We might also consider using the power of social media to counter-attack, setting up Facebook groups, for example, dedicated to sharing stories about the actual experience that consumers have with well-known brands.  Someone might consider establishing websites to discuss the shortcomings and over-pricing of specific brands that are heavily promoted.

And we can begin to take pride in being frugal and discriminating, in having our own independent and fully conscious standards.

(Also published in Mindful Money)