Why would anyone buy a bad product?
I guess it depends on your definition of bad.
Truly bad products with no redeeming qualities, don’t succeed — just look at the Ford Pinto. Of course, the failure of the Ford Pinto (which caused deadly fires when hit from the rear) didn’t cause permanent damage to Ford Motor Company. That’s one of the ways we know that product branding is MUCH more complex than is taught in textbooks.
Certainly, truly dreadful products usually don’t survive, but some not-so-good products do. That’s because we buy products for any number of reasons and the actual performance of the product itself might only represent one factor considered in the equation. So, let’s take a look at what goes into a brand to understand better why someone might buy a bad product.
What is branding?
Naively, you might think a brand is a product you buy. But, a brand is so much more. Here’s a good definition of a brand:
A brand is an intangible marketing or business concept that helps people identify a company, product, or individual. People often confuse brands with things like logos, slogans, or other recognizable marks, which are marketing tools that help promote goods and services.
A brand, often referred to as a brand image, is impacted by everything consumers know about the brand, including obvious elements such as the look and feel of the product. Also part of a brand is all our associations surrounding the brand (see the image above), such as perceived value, advertising positioning, marketing messaging, trust, design, and identity. All these elements of a brand impact our purchase decisions, not just the product performance.
Take Starbucks coffee as an example. The coffee is not good (and this doesn’t just come from me. There’s a report from CBS News citing the taste as only marginally better than Mcdonald’s and there are lots of other folks who turn up in a web search who swear Starbucks is a bad product). But are you really buying a cup of coffee when you buy Starbucks, or are you buying a lifestyle? While many might say the coffee is bad, most agree the lifestyle is to be emulated — after all, you can hardly pick up a celebrity magazine without seeing a star slurping down a cup of the brew. Plus, Starbucks is a good corporate citizen, supporting fair trade and the community and treating its employees fairly. Even when those aspects of the brand might not appeal to a consumer, the advantage of Starbucks over its competitors is that it represents a “third place” that is comfortable with free WIFI, unfettered access to bathrooms and power, as well as unlimited time to use the facilities.
Or, look at Mcdonald’s itself. They produce heart-stopping food laden with salt, fat, and cholesterol that’s objectively bad for us. A movie even showed the effects of a steady diet composed of McDonald’s fook called Supersize Me (see below). Yet, the company has no shortage of customers primarily due to the incredibly low price charged for its food. I mean, a hamburger costs less than an apple at the restaurant and provides a more filling alternative.
Non-tangible elements of a brand
In addition to the elements of a brand listed in the infographic at the top of this post, there are two other features of a brand that seriously impact brands and explain why consumers choose one over another: trust and brand personality.
Before you spend your hard-earned money to buy something, you must trust that brand will perform well to solve your problem. As you can see below, trust has a big impact on purchase intentions for all types of products, plus lack of trust impacts other behaviors that convince other consumers to avoid your brand and other behaviors that damage your performance.
Brand personality is formed through advertising and user-generated content such as word-of-mouth and social media content. Consumers choose brands whose personalities resonate with their vision of who they are. Below. you can see the accepted brand archetypes and examples of companies that are typical of firms with a particular personality.
Why do consumers choose one product over another?
Consumers buy products for many reasons, not only because they’re the best or cheapest. They buy products because:
- They’re novel
- They’re cool
- People they admire own them and, by buying the product, consumers feel they’re part of that group
- They look good
- They make you look good
- They’re fun
- and lots of other reasons that make sense to them even if they don’t make sense to you
And lots of inferior products drive out superior ones. Take Betamax — remember, the big clunking movie cassettes that competed with the even bigger VHS tapes (remember, be kind, rewind). Now, I’m not an engineer and I don’t even play one on TV, but I’ve read statements that Betamax was superior to VHS in terms of technical performance (in fact, when TV stations record news features, it’s mainly on something much like a Beta cassette). And while VHS has since gone the way of the dinosaur, it survived a lot longer than Beta. Why? It’s simply that SONY, which made the Beta machine, didn’t allow cheap imitations to arise because they didn’t allow other firms to see what was inside the machine — called closed architecture. Meanwhile, VHS machines (which used open architecture) were made by a bunch of electronics firms and ran the gambit from very expensive branded machines to cheap unknown brands. This encouraged more folks to buy the VHS format. Once there were more VHS machines, moviemakers were encouraged to make more movies available in that format. Soon, you couldn’t find a Beta version of a movie anywhere and folks traded in their old machines for new VHS players.
Soon, Beta was out of business because it’s no fun owning a machine with few movies to watch. The same thing almost happened to Apple before they wised up and allowed access to their computers for software developers. After learning that hard lesson, Apple mastered it with their iPhone, which gains much of its appeal not from superior technology but from the fun apps created exclusively for the device. As more of these apps appeared on Android devices, their market share shrank, but it still has that coolness factor due to their superior design.
The 8-track tape is another example of a superior product pushed out by an inferior one — cassettes — for the same reason as Beta. Microsoft is another example — an inferior product that survives due to the size of its installed base. Similar stories abound.
So, does that mean its OK to produce mediocre or bad products?
Of course not. Bad products leave you vulnerable to competitors who offer a better product with all the same benefits you provide. If someone else comes along with a product that is equally cool, novel, fun, and better quality, you’ll quickly see your profits begin to slip. Look at what’s happened to the iPhone. The joke with iPhone was it was great for everything except making a phone call (of course, now everyone texts rather than calling). While the company’s technological performance improved over time, some consumers switched to Android devices with similar features and better phone quality. Of course, consumers are still loyal to the iPhone as it represents the “cool” device when compared with all Android phones. But, the dominance of the iPhone over all other devices slipped.
The take-home is that at least 3 factors outside of product quality control product success:
- Other desirable attributes of the product that outweigh poor performance on its key dimensions, such as personality, loyalty, and trust
- Availability of complementary products along with the value reflected by these products. The better the performance of complementary products, the stronger the challenge to maintain your market share.
- If your product relies on complementary products (i.e., tapes in the Betamax example), the ready availability of these complementary products greatly impacts your performance. Thus, you must work collaboratively with the manufacturers of these complementary products to enhance their availability.
Also, don’t rely on superiority in terms of other attributes or the availability of compatible and complementary products to sustain your profitability — go for improving the quality along the way.
I hope this post helped you understand the complexities involved in branding and how defining a “bad product” isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. This offers hope to companies as they compete in a crowded marketplace. Not every product is objectively higher quality; that’s like Lake Wobegone, where all the children are above average. The statistical impossibility means some products are bound to offer more than others from a tangible perspective. But, by understanding the complexity that goes into consumer decision-making, you can build a brand that appeals to a subset of consumers (your target market) by adapting the intangible aspects of your brand to fit their desires.
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