Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2010 | Features

Battle of the Brands

By Shelbi Thomas
Baby Shoes
A marketing course explores the complex and often illogical reasons why we buy.

Ryan Shenefelt stood in the toothpaste aisle and surveyed the dozens of brands that competed for his wallet with promises to fight tooth decay, whiten his teeth, and keep his smile healthy and beautiful. Despite such blandishments, Shenefelt* bypassed the advertisers' persuasive attempts and cut to the heart of the matter. Explains the UI freshman, whose family always buys Crest, "I wanted something that reminded me of home."

Although Crest's ad campaigns feature the American Dental Association's seal of approval, Shenefelt didn't apply logic to his purchase decision. He wasn't buying a brand—he was buying an emotion.

Shenefelt isn't alone in following his heart. He and other participants in this past semester's UI marketing course on "Why We Buy" learned how companies regularly use psychology to develop their customers' loyalty and attachment. "People buy things for irrational reasons," says Cathy Cole, who co-teaches the course with fellow marketing professor Gary Russell. "It's not always about the lowest price."

Before this class, many of the 16 students in Cole and Russell's first-year seminar had never stopped to think about why they prefer one product to another. In fact, this past semester may have marked the first time these freshmen had purchased household goods without help from Mom or Dad.

Deliberating in the toothpaste aisle is just one of many new experiences they'll encounter at college. In addition to making them educated consumers, the seminar aims also to smooth the academic transition between high school and college. As part of their learning curve, the undergraduates become familiar with classroom technology, complete extensive reading assignments, and gain confidence in giving presentations in front of the class. They also get a better idea of what it's like to be a student in the UI Tippie College of Business, exploring the marketing major with experts in consumer behavior (Cole) and marketing research (Russell).

The professors hope the class dispels common marketing myths, such as the false assumption that all products need advertising. Commercials may bombard television viewers with products ranging from soap to luxury cars, but most items receive their first—and only—introduction to consumers on the store shelf. Manufacturers tend to reserve ads for products that help consumers communicate their identity. In an age where cell phones have become a status symbol, Verizon and AT&T work hard to convince users that they have the best coverage. Tool companies, on the other hand, tend not to advertise directly to consumers; instead, they sell hammers and other basic equipment by persuading hardware stores to carry them.

Marketing companies know that most consumer decisions aren't rational, although they certainly are complex. In the course, students discover why people become attached to particular brands and the different factors at play in the purchase of a candy bar rather than a couch. When people feel more is at stake—whether that be their pocketbook or their style—they become more involved in a purchase. "For the things that make up who I am, such as clothes or shoes, I stick with my favorite brands," says Steve Waeghe*, of Naperville, Illinois, "but for food, I can adjust [to a generic product]."

Indeed, manufacturers gear their marketing strategies towards consumers' particular attitudes about their products. While furniture and new product commercials typically offer facts and logic, fashion apparel and car ads tend to appeal to emotions. Recognizing that consumers don't invest as much effort into basic, regularly purchased items such as milk or sugar, marketers rely on buyers' force of habit to help them make profits.

As a brand earns consumers' trust, its marketing relies less on the product's function and more on its emotional bond with customers. Russell gives the example of soft drink ads, which typically sell ambiance over taste. "Their commercials don't tell anything about their products, but show a social setting that people might want to emulate," he says. "Coke has always been about patriotism, true-blue Americans, flags, and small towns, whereas Pepsi attracts the younger generation who do their own thing."

To explore the factors that influence such preferences, "Why We Buy" students keep a blog for two weeks detailing the brands they purchase. They use their observations to write a paper discussing the cultural, social, or personal motivations behind their choices. Soon, they realize they make many decisions without much thought. "The justification for buying the products often comes afterwards," says Russell.

Grant Stadheim, of Albert Lea, Minnesota, observed that his limited income influenced him to buy a certain brand of correction fluid. "Since I didn't need it to be perfect," he says, "I looked for the cheapest brand I could find."

Social factors, such as the opinions of family and friends, also carry weight. Clayton Grandquist, of West Des Moines, admits that peer pressure THINK …what you can learn Battle of the Brands A marketing course explores the complex and often illogical reasons why we buy. People buy things for irrational reasons. It's not always about the lowest price." prompted him to buy an Iowa shirt that flaunted his Hawkeye allegiance. Waeghe modeled his Kraft macaroni and cheese selection on his family's usual choices.

On their own, a brand name and symbol don't hold much meaning. But, as advertisers consistently reinforce a product's image and significance, consumers catch on. Maytag means dependability. Wal-mart represents low prices. Dove signifies true natural beauty.

For these reasons, changing an established brand is risky. Disney created Touchstone Pictures so that the Disney name—strongly associated with kid-friendliness—wouldn't be diluted by the movies it geared towards adults. Because Tylenol had long established its trusted brand, it endured a product-tampering crisis in 1982 that likely would have ruined other companies. Coca-Cola, on the other hand, is still notorious for its disastrous 1985 New Coke experiment.

Kool-Aid remains one of the few companies in recent times to successfully alter its image. The drink mix used to be viewed as a relic of yesteryear—until the brand repositioned itself to be relevant to the MTV generation. Its in-your-face depiction of a cartoon pitcher smashing through walls worked. Most brands, though, tend to reiterate their existing message. "Advertising is like someone whispering in your ear," says Russell. "It's reinforcement [of the image already out there]."

In a consumer's eyes, brand names such as Aunt Jemima and Jolly Green Giant add value to a product that would otherwise be just another bottle of syrup or can of beans. To learn more about this concept—known as brand equity—students break into teams that study and present on America's top brands.

Shenefelt and his partner shared how McDonald's has begun to compete with Starbucks by introducing the McCafé. While Starbucks has positioned itself as the coffee brand for people who want to treat themselves to a luxurious coffeehouse experience, McDonald's has found its niche with customers who care about affordability. "The recession affects how people spend their money, and McDonald's is taking advantage of that shift," says Shenefelt, of Polo, Illinois. "A lot of people like the atmosphere in Starbucks, but you're only paying more for the music and the comfy chairs."

Comparing Reebok with Nike, Waeghe realized that, while both companies use star athletes to promote their shoes, Reebok lags behind its competitor. Reebok's multiple logos don't conjure up any immediate recognition with consumers, he asserted, while everyone associates the Nike swoosh with the stirring slogan to "Just do it."

To show brands' influence on consumer decisions, students participated in taste-test experiments, sampling three brands of graham crackers, snack mix, and cola. Shenefelt, who describes himself as a "diehard Pepsi fan," believed—like most of his classmates—that he could distinguish Pepsi from Coke and the generic version. Surprisingly, the experiment revealed that most students either couldn't differentiate among the samples or actually preferred the generic product. Says Cole, "I've heard that in totally blind taste tests, people can't tell the difference between Coke and 7-Up."

Since the experiment, many students look at generic labels with newfound respect. "We had preconceived notions about the non-name brand items," admits Shenefelt, "but you can get better quality and more satisfaction from buying cheaper."

In "Why We Buy," UI freshmen learn to be more thoughtful consumers and prepared business students. They also discover how to sell themselves to employers. A Pomerantz Career Center advisor visits the class to discuss some practical ways—such as developing creative cover letters and choosing career-relevant extracurricular activities—students can use branding to distinguish themselves from the competition.

"It threw me off, because I never thought of myself as a brand before," says Shenefelt. "Now I see that my brand is not ordinary, and I try to be different and stand out from others."

Spoken like a true marketer.