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Product vs. Brand

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Best Product vs. Best Brand

Product vs. Brand

Contributed by Ron Marcus, ZUZA Marketing Cheerleader

Many companies boast loudly and proudly that they offer the very best product or service in their industry. And they may be right. But they’re still not the sales leader in their category. Why is that?

Because, odds are, their competitors, with arguably inferior products, are doing a better job of branding. People buy brands first, products and services second.

Learn how good branders finish first, in this week’s ZUZA Marketer’s Blog post.

The best brand always wins.

Take two identical, competing products, and the one with the best-executed brand will always win. Take two other competing products of varying quality or utility, and the inferior product can still win if its brand is stronger; that is, customers have a better experience using it and interacting with its company than with the other company. In other words, they trust that brand more.

Example 1: iPod

When Apple released the iPod in 2001, they did something no other mp3 player manufacturer did: they made it proprietary. You could only use it if you had a Mac with iTunes software on it, because that was the only way to get music on it. Sure, it had a 5GB capacity (“A thousand songs in your pocket!”) and used “lightning fast” FireWire to transfer data. It could even be used as an external hard drive! But, you had to join Apple’s insular ecosystem to use it. And that was quite limiting.

Apple took a big risk doing this, because it wanted to sell more Macs. But, Steve Jobs and company had consistently been expert branders. Apple was (and still is) all about creating awesome, “magical” user experiences, and reinforcing those experiences with breakthrough advertising.

Apple’s gamble paid off. All the other mp3 player brands of the day have long since disappeared. In fact, the iPod became so synonymous with portable music that Apple finally “relented” and put iTunes on Windows so PC users could buy iPods too. That was the tipping point for Apple, transitioning from being a computer manufacturer to being a personal electronics manufacturer. In other words, the iPod had become more critical to Apple’s success and growth than the Mac. That’s why Apple Computer changed its name to Apple Inc. in 2007, at the exact same time that it released its ultimate iPod, the iPhone.

Against Apple’s superior branding prowess, other mp3 players manufacturers never had a chance, no matter how good their players were.

Example 2: Starbucks

Many loyal Starbucks patrons will admit that Starbucks does not brew the absolute best tasting coffee. Why then do so many people spend 10-15 minutes in line every morning and a good $4.00 out of their pockets to get their daily cup of Joe at Starbucks when they could support the local premium coffee shop, or, for just pennies, brew a delicious cup at home? Is it atmosphere? Amenities? Music? Visit just about any modern, gourmet coffee shop, and you’ll get pretty much the same experience: artsy indie rock music or jazz playing on the sound system, free Wi-Fi internet, friendly hipster baristas at the counter, a selection of fresh baked goods, and the aroma of delicious gourmet coffee in several varieties, not to mention about twenty different ways to have your coffee – latte, vanilla latte, caramel latte, espresso, Americano, cappuccino – to name a few. So – why Starbucks?

Branding. Starbucks has masterfully created a cult of coffee drinkers. In essence, Starbucks has made its own brand synonymous with the artsy corner coffee shop experience. When you think of a coffee shop to meet and drink at, Starbucks is always top of mind, even if there are ten other cafes in your neighborhood with arguably better coffee and better ambiance. Starbucks owns the position as the default for good coffee and a nice place to get it, sit for a while, enjoy company, or get some work done.

Example 3: Coke

In the 1980s, Pepsi ran a series of commercials with blind taste tests to prove that people preferred the taste of Pepsi over Coca Cola. Test after test showed that tasters preferred the sweeter taste of Pepsi. Yet, Coca Cola remained the market leader. The user experience of drinking a Coke was just better, thanks to a century of masterful marketing and branding on Coca Cola’s part. In fact, in Interbrand’s annual ranking of the top 100 brands, in 2013, Coca Cola ranked 3rd (just below Google and Apple), while Pepsi ranked a distant 22nd.

“So, I can get away with an inferior product or service as long as my branding is better?”

Let’s be clear: if the iPod sucked, Starbucks coffee tasted rancid, or Coke was bland soda, then no amount of branding and marketing prowess could save them. The customer experience of using these products would be bad, and that would tarnish these brands. But in fact, the iPod was a decent mp3 player with some novel features – good enough to make people happy when using it – and the experience of being associated with Apple remained fantastic, reinforced by great branding and marketing. The same goes for Starbucks. Its coffee isn’t the best, but it’s pretty good (even better when you flavor it), and they’ve done a great job of making visitors feel special on a consistent basis. Ditto for Coke – people associate family, togetherness and shared good times with the Coke drinking experience – associations that Pepsi has not successfully earned for its own.

In other words, no amount of great branding can save a bad product. But great branding can put a parity product, or even an arguably inferior product, out on top – that is, if the overall experience of a product and its company is outstanding.

Deliver a great total experience.

As we’ve said many times in this blog, your brand is the sum total experience your customers have of your company, products and services – through every interaction, including passive receipt of your advertising, shopping for your product, using your products and dealing with your customer service representatives, as well as what customers hear about your company from the media. (To learn more about this holistic view of branding, see our previous blog post, Brand Touch Points.)

Of course, the quality of your product or service offering plays a big part in determining your sales volume and the success of your company. But it only plays a part. You may think you have the best product on the planet, but your competitors may be delivering a better total experience which more than makes up for any shortcomings of their products. In fact, your competitors’ customers may be so happy that they wouldn’t perceive any product shortcomings even if you spelled them out.

What constitutes a great total experience?

That is the subject of many volumes, but here’s a good summary:

  • Treat customers like kings and queens. Unfailingly. Relentlessly.

  • Surprise and delight your customers with unexpectedly great service and perks.

  • Present a brand voice and personality for your company that resonates with customers – i.e. they think it’s cool to be associated with you. This means really understanding your customers! (See our blog post, Buyer Personas.)

  • Look the part – with modern, attractive graphic design, good copywriting, and consistent presentation in your packaging and marketing (online and offline).

  • Brand your company in a way that is different from your competitors, so customers can feel special for having chosen your brand.

  • Provide a product or service that does what the customer needs and does it well. It needn’t, and shouldn’t, be all things to all people. Do a few things well, and leave “best at everything” or “has every feature” to your more poorly-branded competitors.

  • Deliver a high-quality product or service, and stand behind it 110%.

  • Communicate often with your customers to keep them feeling loved and special.

  • Develop a company culture that supports the brand. Energize and inspire your employees to happily give their very best to keep your customers in love with your brand (See our blog posts, Brand from Within and Vision, Mission, Values.)


Great branding is much easier said than done. It’s one thing to write a blog post about it and quite another to do it. It will require vision, passion, and total commitment from your executive team to deliver an awesome total experience for your customers as well as your employees. It will also require the right expertise. Assemble a team of internal and external experts who can help you build both a winning culture and winning brand, encompassing all aspects of your company. To help your team get inspired down this path, we highly recommend reading this book, Delivering Happiness, by Tony Hsieh, CEO of ZAPPOS. What they’ve done with culture and brand is nothing short of amazing.

Here’s to the Marketing Champion in all of us. See you in the next post.

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