February/March, 2009

From the Editor

How Consumers Perceive Brands

This issue’s cover story presents some terrific consumer research done by Olson Communications of Chicago. It focuses on branding and consumer perceptions related to product attributes. The research is revealing, intriguing and easily misinterpreted.

Over the years, we’ve conducted and studied consumer research on various perishable products and perishable shopping venues. Virtually every research report has shown that the most important attributes consumers look for when selecting shopping venues are cleanliness, assortment or variety and price or value.

Depending on the economy, the topics in the news and the methodology of the study, these three values may change places but they consistently lead the pack.

Cleanliness actually has turned up as the No. 1 criterion in selecting a shopping venue in most of the research studies. A casual student of consumer research might think these results indicate that a wise supermarket operator should simply double down on the mopping crew. Perhaps. Each situation is unique, and sometimes more attention to cleanliness is just what the doctor ordered.

More likely, the enormous importance of cleanliness on such a broad base of consumers has made all the major competitors acceptably clean. Even though cleanliness is crucial, being cleaner may not offer a competitive advantage. Cleanliness becomes the ante, the price one pays to enter the game, not a competitive tool.

We thought of this as we read the research report by Sharon Olson. “Taste” and “price” show up as the key drivers motivating consumers to purchase product. The question is, ‘What does that mean?”

If I am buying hot dogs, I buy only kosher, all-beef hot dogs. This is not for religious reasons; it is because they typically have a different flavor profile than hot dogs made with pork and cereal.

Taste is crucial to me. I will never buy anything but a kosher hot dog, but I can’t really say I have strong preferences of one kosher brand over another. So when consumers report taste is important, it is not 100 percent clear that they mean they can tell the nuances of Land ‘O Lakes yellow American cheese versus Boars Head yellow American cheese. This may explain why the research shows consumers will quite easily replace a favored brand in the deli with an alternative. The unspoken part of that willingness to switch is the assumption that an alternative has a similar flavor profile.

This is a weak kind of brand affiliation. Marketers would like consumers to leave if the store doesn’t have a favored brand. In my family, for example, nobody would consider any mayonnaise but Hellmann’s. If our store were out, we would have to go elsewhere. If our store stopped carrying it, we would switch stores.

Mayonnaise, of course, is a jarred product and we can’t open up a jar to see how another brand tastes. In this sense, the merchandising practices of the service deli often work against brand loyalty. At our local Publix, the deli clerk takes the order, slices a single piece, asks if this thickness is good and offers the piece as a sample. Often you can hear consumers ask about the ham that is on special and ask to try a slice. This ability to sample reduces the necessity of reliance on brands.

It is also true that on many items, such as prepared salads, many stores try to give the impression the product was made on site, so it is difficult for consumers to know what the brand is. Growing up on the north shore of Long Island, I had no idea what brand the salads were, but I remember little signs sticking up from the mayonnaise-based salads — “Made with Hellmann’s” — and that was a mark of quality for my family.

Consumer responses grow out of their experiences, and we suspect branding could mean much more. Today many stores sign up with one brand as the dominant supplier to the deli, with signage making it look almost like a concession or franchise. Although other brands may be sold, they are typically store brands or fill gaps in the offer — such as kosher product. The main brand typically sells excellent product, but it is unlikely that one company will really make the very best Genoa salami and the best Cheddar cheese.

So a great retailer that wants to have buyers work item by item and find the best in each line could have a competitive edge, and if some marketing were done to explain to consumers why each brand was selected, we would likely see brand loyalty being engendered.

Building brands takes time and effort. We ask consumers why they do things, but most people are creatures of habit. One suspects the most likely reason for buying a particular brand is not rational; the answers researchers elicit are rationalizations to explain buying what Mom bought.

Is it trust that the quality and flavor will be right? Is it certainty that you will enjoy the product? Perhaps the answer is that food has an emotional component, and if giving your kids a tuna sandwich made with Hellmann’s mayonnaise makes you remember your own mom handing you a tuna sandwich made with Hellmann’s mayonnaise, the warm memory comes from paying a tiny premium for the tuna.  DB