What is a brand name? A brand name is an invitation to pay and not have to think.

All a brand name tries to do is tell you, “Buy me, and you’re going to get a consistently good product. You don’t have to think about or weigh alternatives. Just buy me.”

When you buy a Coke rather than Supermarket Soda, what are you doing? You’re buying something that pretty consistently tastes like a Coke. You don’t have to wonder or experiment with the others. You just buy it and drink it and probably like it.

If you don’t, at least you know you’ll probably not like it the next time either. You won’t wonder, “Will I get a better one next time?”

This even works when the product isn’t necessarily so good. So long as it’s consistent, and at least tolerable, people find it more comforting to have the devil you know rather than the devil you don’t.

This is why American tourists overseas often go to McDonalds in, say, Paris. It’s not that the average American tourist is necessary a pig instinctively finding his trough. It’s not a national insult. It’s fear of the unknown.

They know what to expect from McDonald’s. They don’t know what to expect from that little bistro. Sure, knock them for culinary cowardice or incompetence, but scoffing Parisians often run, not walk, to French restaurants when they’re in America, and fast-food joints are not the quintessence of American cuisine, either. Same thing.

This applies to stores, too. A lot of people will buy something at Macy’s when they could pay less elsewhere. Exact same product. Why? Because Macy’s gave the product its seal of approval. Others will buy a product at the cheaper place, but only after seeing it sold at Macy’s. Why? Macy’s has done their thinking for them.

It also holds true for buying computers. A decade ago, you went to a computer store to buy a computer. Now, the average person is fairly likely to buy one from a general elecronically-inclined store.

This seems to be a good fit to the average person. To him, a computer is a more advanced TV set. It’s a consumer electronics item.

Over time and through experience, he or she has been brought up to have faith in the brand name of both the product and the store. He or she has bought certain brands of consumer electronics from stores like that, with minimal thought on his or her part, and they’ve looked or sounded fine to him or her, so why would it be any different for a computer?

Relatively few computer brand names from the PC era have filtered into the head of the average person: Intel, Compaq, Dell, Gateway. Many now associated with personal computers really built their reputation during the pre-PC era: Hewlett-Packard, IBM, or from other areas of consumer electronics: Canon, Sony, Toshiba

But who knows what Asus is? Plextor? Quantum? Offer the average person the choice between a Sony CD-RW and a Plextor, and they’ll take the Sony every time.

Buying a computer for the first time is definitely a jump into the unknown for most people. A brand name is like a sedative; it calms the fears. You’ve bought Sony TVs from Circuit City before and that turned out alright, why not buy a Sony computer from the same place, too?

The last part of the article I referenced on the page illustrates this beautifully. This is what’s really going on in the customer’s head:

“I bought RAM from Circuit City. If Circuit City sells it, it has to be good, or at least good enough. It’s generic RAM? Well, Circuit City wouldn’t sell bad stuff, and I’ve bought generic products before, they were OK.

“Now this strange guy working for a store that doesn’t have a brand name like Circuit City is telling me that the Circuit City stuff is no good. Who am I going to believe, this strange guy or Circuit City?

“I will keep the faith. If there’s a problem, it must be with this strange unknown product, not with anything from Circuit City.”

Before you scoff, look at yourself and ask if you don’t do the same thing with the more “in” computer brand names.

The problem with computer afficionados is that our products haven’t quite hit what people normally expect from brand-name consistency. Even the best computer “brand name” companies come out with dogs, and fairly often.

I often see people babble about a product I know isn’t terribly good, but it doesn’t matter, because they have brand-name-on-the-brain on this product. I’ve even seen others tell people who are having obviously product-caused problems, “It can’t be the product’s fault, it must be yours. You are not worthy of this.”

That’s no better than the guy who bought the RAM at Circuit City.

The Real Problem

The problem isn’t the use of brand-names as a mental short-circuit, but its excessive use. If you thoroughly researched everything you consumed, you’d probably starve to death, and often not end up with anything much better for the effort. Many products have a well-deserved reputation for consistent quality.

The problem is using brand-names as an automatic knee-jerk reaction to everything, big and small, to the exclusion of all else, including reality. Just like that guy with the Circuit City RAM.

Even the best company occasionally makes a lousy product, whether it be a product line, or an individual product. There’s a big difference between saying, “This product will almost always be good” and “This product can’t be bad.”

How many perfect people do you know? Not good, very good or even excellent people. People who are always perfect. None? Let me tell you, even people with the brand-name “Saint” attached to them weren’t perfect. Just very, very good.

So why assume that level of perfection from a product or store?

It is assumed because perfection requires no thought. You don’t have to worry about perfection. You don’t have to think about it. It’s always reliable, always dependable, because . . . it’s perfect.

Isn’t perfection great? Now find it.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting a “perfect” product. Nothing wrong with expecting the vast majority of the products you buy to get the job done well the vast majority of the time. You should seek perfection. Just don’t exclude the possibility of imperfection from something just because it has a brand name.

Now that we’ve precluded “perfection,” let’s move on to “better.” You can’t assume a product is best for you just because it has a brand name. Take the Apple Macintosh. It certainly has a brand name. Many people find it the best product for themselves. That doesn’t mean it’s best for you.

Yes, figuring out what’s best for you requires effort. Yes, this does require thinking. Yes, this is probably overkill in deciding which quart of milk to buy.

But it amazes me to watch people buy computers or cars or houses with the same mental effort they use to buy soft drinks. You can always throw out a lousy Coke, try throwing out a lousy house.

So don’t sweat the small stuff, but save your efforts for the biggies.

Email Ed

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