Roll up, roll up, snake-oil for sale!
A study conducted as far back as 1963 seems to confirm the popular view that much of the business of branding is about sleight of hand.
Each day, the good people at Delancey Place send on what they describe as 'eclectic little excerpts' from various books and articles on almost any subject under the sun.
A recent excerpt, which was taken from Leonard Mlodinow's The Drunkard's Walk, How Randomness Rules Our Lives, cites how expectations seem to colour our taste:
"In 1963, three researchers secretly added a bit of red food color to a white wine to give it the blush of a rose. Then they asked a group of experts to rate its sweetness in comparison with the untinted wine. The experts perceived the fake rose as sweeter than the white, according to their expectation.
Another group of researchers gave a group of oenology students two wine samples. Both samples contained the same white wine, but to one was added a tasteless grape anthocyanin dye that made it appear to be red wine. The students also perceived differences between the red and white corresponding to their expectations.
And in a 2008 study a group of volunteers asked to rate five wines rated a bottle labeled $90 higher than another bottle labeled $10, even though the sneaky researchers had filled both bottles with the same wine...
Proof, if proof were needed, that branding is just one more gimmick in the bag of the snake-oil salesman.
But, like any instrument, branding can be used to very different ends: Misdirection in the case of the fake label but help and guidance in many others.
Once, at a conference, I chatted with someone who played a role in the recruitment and training of staff for Spar convenience stores here in Ireland. Now, I've never been a fan of the Spar signage. Even as a child I found it ugly and crude. However, my colleague told me about the care that Spar take in choosing people to work in their shops; how they recruit young people, who are cheerful and friendly, live locally and are at school or college. He insisted that these criteria meant that a Spar shop assistant offered a particular brand of helpfulness.
Until that time, I had passed by our local Spar shop with my nose in the air, determined not to darken the door of a monument to bad taste. However, shortly after I met this brand champion, I found myself entering the local Spar to make a small purchase. To my surprise, I discovered the youngster behind the counter to be as friendly and obliging as I'd been told. For the first time, I was able to look beyond the crude exterior and see what was behind it. I've since become a regular visitor to Spar.
Misdirection on the one hand, help and guidance on the other.
In the right hands, the brand plays its role in making the business of selection much easier for the customer. When handled clumsily or dishonestly, it can deceive and mislead.
The real power of branding is apparent when it's used well: for both buyer and seller life is simpler, as the brand skilfully directs customers to where they can get what they want, when they want it and at a price they're happy to pay.
I guess it's time for me to get up onto my soapbox...
Roll up, roll up, brand-direction for sale!