I Exhibit, Therefore I Am: The Psychology Behind Why People Buy Brands


Why do people buy brands? Because they want to stand out as individuals and brands can help them tap into this psychological need? How branding works and why people prefer branded products over generic ones is a question with no straight answer. If you are a hard-core Nike fan, you’ll get a Nike pair no matter the price. That’s fairly evident, but have you ever wondered what Nike really is? Is it just a product with a track record of high performance? A fancy pair of shoes that look great, feel great, and last longer? Or something with a rather subtle function — a tool to quench your inner thirst for outward showiness? Maybe Nike is all of these. 

When we look at brands and how people are immersed in them today, it’s only natural to wonder what the world looked like in an age when there was none of these — no Nike, no Apple, no IBM, no Facebook, no Uber, and no Fair & Lovely. Sure, it may have been a less colorful world but also less cluttered in a sense.

Clutter seems to be the mother of the brand invention. The history of advertising tells us that branding arose from the emergence of a cluttered economy powered by the industrial revolution. Although Johannes Guttenberg’s printing press invention in the 15th century revolutionized mass communication, it took another revolution for the branding industry to emerge on the horizon — the industrial revolution. 

If I may bore you with a little bit more context, when the world took a giant stride from an agrarian and handicraft economy to one dominated by industry and machine manufacturing, mass production of consumer goods became possible. Before the industrial revolution, people didn’t have a lot of choices and so the need for one product to stand out from the rest simply didn’t exist. With growing industrialization grew more competition and suddenly it became impossible for a single player to monopolize a category or even retain existing buyers. 

It had to be equally difficult for consumers to make choices. When there are more options with no differentiable characteristics, which one to pick? All products offered similar functions or promised almost identical benefits. That means, just getting your product within the reach of buyers wasn’t sufficient anymore — you also needed to find a way to make it stand out. In other words, you needed to apply the principles of branding. 

“Advertising agencies began to appear in England in the 1800s, and companies used them to find increasingly new and innovative ways to reach customers. As many people did not read newspapers, other advertising tactics were used, including the use of banners on hand-held poles, people wearing placards, and umbrellas with signs on them. Companies began to promote their ‘brand names’ through attractive packaging and eye-catching slogans.”    —  Erin O’Neill: History of Branding

It took companies many decades to realize the importance of branding and start channeling more resources towards it. Now that they knew that branding was a serious business, suddenly it became all the more necessary to come up with a creative brand name, an evocative tagline, an eye-catching logo, and a visually-appealing color scheme — things their predecessors wouldn’t have given a smidgen of attention. 

For consumers, in the early days, branding was more of a tool to help distinguish one product from another. As such, they didn’t indulge in all the crazy ideas people associate with brands today — no one thought themselves a brand loyalist or a member of a brand tribe. It was rather the assignment of brands to bring these ideas to life in an increasingly cluttered economy of products and services. Competition invented, sowed, and nurtured the seed of branding and the branding principles at work enabled companies to reign supreme in the world of consumers. 

Today when people decide to buy the brands they prefer, it’s not just quality, brand loyalty, brand image, brand trust, or brand persona they have in mind; it’s a combination of them. If you’re a coffee-lover, you wouldn’t step into a Starbucks cafe every day if it wasn’t for the entire brand experience — the product, the quality, the customer service, the reward points, and everything that contributes to the Starbucks experience. The ambiance or how impressive their brand image feels wouldn’t help maintain your relationship if you had to drink something you don’t like every day. By the same token, you might have the same coffee elsewhere — and for a lot cheaper — yet you’ll not be willing to trade off the rest of what makes Starbucks the brand you embrace it for. 

So what is a brand?

There’s no universal definition or an all-encompassing formula we can use to describe it. The closest of what may encapsulate what a brand is, we can say, it’s “a customer’s perception”.  “A brand”, as Marty Neumeier describes, “is not a logo. A brand is not an identity. A brand is not a product.” 

What is it then?  “A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or organization.

Now, perception or gut feeling are no less murky terms to describe a brand. No two individuals’ gut feelings about a brand could be the same. One may put a high price on a product’s utilitarian value (what it can do for me) while the other may be driven more by its qualitative value (how it’s going to make me feel). That means two individuals may be attracted by the same brand but for two different reasons. 

In other words, what we call ‘gut feelings’ in reality are different states of mind that are influenced by a variety of external and internal factors. And, sometimes, brands make conscious efforts to influence those feelings or states of mind. Other times, they happen as the byproduct of what a brand does in the usual course of its operation. 

When Steve Jobs uttered the name ‘Apple’ for the first time, Wozniak laughed and said, “It’s a computer company, not a fruit store.” Wozniak’s could be representative of the gut feelings of thousands of other individuals at the time, but it all changed as the brand carved its way through the nascent PC market of the 80s. As time went by, Apple completely outgrew all the odd feelings associated with its name and replaced those with a lofty, captivating, and surefooted brand image.   

However the brand development process unfolds, it should be of interest to us to know what factors essentially drive people’s attention to the brands they admire. 

So let’s dive in and find out what those factors are! 

The edge factor

Everyone wants to outshine everyone else. In a society where a person’s worth is less determined by who he is and more by what he got, affectation and an outward display of affluence become the norm. If you can afford to wear an Apple watch, drive a Mercedes, dress in Armani suits, dine in a Marriott, and carry a Louis Vuitton handbag, you have but very little in common with the commoners. Without much effort, you can put across a louder-than-words message that says: “I’m special. Don’t take my word for it. Take a glance at what I got or where I go.” 

Such a tendency is embedded in our human psyche and lifestyle brands know best how to tap into them. How do they do it? First off, they make it a point to create something of value. Then they embark on marketing and advertising to create a massive demand around it. And, finally, they make it scarcer and less affordable. There they have it — a brand that only intends to charm a certain class of buyers. You may be a fan but it doesn’t shy away from telling you, “Can you afford me? Are you worthy enough? Great, then buy me and join my tribe.” 

So, one reason why people prefer brands over generic products is the edge factor traceable to a person’s social, economic, or financial status. The more effectively a brand supplements that status, the more compelling appeal will it have for the status-mongers in society. Having said that, this concept may not pass the test of validity in the case of brands that cater to our needs in other areas of life. For example, you have a completely different preference in mind when you go out to buy a vacuum cleaner for your house or an air conditioner for your office. If you’re a carpenter, you will go for a hand saw brand for what it does, not for how it’ll make you feel in the presence of others. A modern husbandman doesn’t care about impressing people when he’s in the field, on his tractor, switching gears, plowing the ground. He wants his machine to do a darn good job — he wants it to function reliably and for a long duration of time. Therefore, more than a name, a logo, or how impressive it looks on the outside, you buy such a product based primarily on trust and dependableness. 

This leads to the second reason why people buy brands. 

Habit buying

While monotony triggers an urge for change, habits do the opposite — they call for uniformity and regularity in human behavior. If you’re in the habit of using Colgate, you’ll keep using it. If you’re used to watching a certain TV program at a certain time of the day, you’ll continue watching it. If you’re used to seeing a certain dentist every time your tooth aches, you’ll keep going to the same dentist. If you’re in the habit of frequently picking up your phone and scrolling through social media, you’ll continue doing so. Breaking out of a habit requires conscious efforts and most people don’t feel the need or motivation to make them. Breaking a habit is also challenging when there’s no element of dissatisfaction. So, for instance, when you buy a Colgate and find no reason to be dissatisfied with it, what is driving your future buying behavior isn’t brand loyalty so much as it is the absence of problems with Colgate. 

Toothpaste is a low involvement product and so are shampoo, toilet paper, polish, salt, and black pepper. As a consumer, you want convenience and these products are no-brainer when it comes to buying. Add to the convenience factor a few repeat purchases and you happily slid into a solid habit of settling for the same brand every time you need to replenish. While brands may not have any control over buyers’ purchase habits in the case of low involvement products, they can certainly make sure their products match the customer expectation in quality where they lack in brand differentiation. 

Brand tribe

When you look at Harley Davidson’s positioning statement, it’s clear what they are after aren’t just customers but cult followers. As poetic as the statement sounds, its formulaically-crafted words are laser-focused on one thing: gaining more cult followers. 

“The only motorcycle manufacturer

That makes big, loud motorcycles

For macho guys (and “macho wannabes”)

Mostly in the United States

Who want to join a gang of cowboys

In an era of decreasing personal freedom.” 

Harley Davidson chooses not to be a one-size-fits-all brand because its strength lies in focus. Brands do prefer loyal customers, to the extent they may even drop entire segments of buyers by the wayside to focus on one, narrowly defined class of customers. The result? A tribe with an uncanny sense of brand loyalty. 

A tribe, if we may borrow a definition from Lexico, is “a social division consisting of individuals linked by social, lingual, cultural, or blood ties, typically having a recognized leader.” In this context, the ties are the tastes and personal preferences that connect one Harley Davidson’s macho guy to another, the leader is the band itself. 

Once you join a tribe, the sacred rule is to never turn your back on the leader (unless you have a bold enough reason to). Competition, price, alternatives, market trends — these things don’t matter. What matters is what you as an individual want to be identified with: the things your cult brand stands for at its core.

PepsiCo and Coca-Cola aren’t even cults in the classic sense, yet the feeling has always been there. The great cola wars between the two giants in the 1970s and 1980s were fought for dominance. But what each got in the end was anything but dominance. The customers of both Pepsi and Coke were truehearted and they never cared about switching loyalties. 

The iconic case of Pepsi Challenge — a blind taste test campaign that surprisingly proved more people were preferring Pepsi over Coke — is worth a quick mention here. Worried by the outcome of Pepsi Challenge, Coke decided to introduce changes to its original recipe to make the product sweeter, more syrupy, and more Pepsi-sh. Coke lovers weren’t ready for any identity crisis yet. They backed off, arguing if they were to drink Pepsi in a Coke bottle, they might as well buy Pepsi — why Coca-Cola, the brand they’ve been loyal to all their lives? It was a fair demand but, besides only complaining, they did something else. They organized and forced the company to reinstate the brand they had a bond with. 

Coke did what Pepsi made them do, yet former Coke fans didn’t just abandon the drink for Pepsi like the girl in the (Pepsi) commercial. Instead, they organized. Grassroots organizations like “Old Cola Drinkers of America” sprung up around the country to petition the company to change the recipe back. On July 11, 1985 — less than three months after Coca-Cola announced the formula change — the company announced it would bring back the old formula under the brand name “Coca-Cola Classic.”  

Full story: here

So, it seems, even the leader can’t mess with the established rules of the tribe or the tribe may cease to exist. 

All cult brands have their own quirks and dynamics. Yet some things are truly core and it’s never a good idea to A/B-test them in response to outside forces. Coke’s original recipe was a core asset — not a variable one — and so it was a mistake to acid-test a replacement recipe on their part. 

All members within a tribe want to be ruled but in the light of some established principles — the customers of a cult brand are hardly an exception. If cult brands can remain true to their roots, their customers will also remain loyal, engaged, and even protective. 

People buy brands they want to be identified with. It’s not about veracity or universal appeal, it’s about subjective judgment and personal choices. As absurd and unhip a brand may sound to one individual, it could be a dream come true for another. 

Personal or professional image

In the personal development and coaching business, successful trainers are those who can tailor their communication and teaching methods to the personality styles of the clients they work with. In the world of branding, things are no different. Successful brands are those who have the clearest insight into what shape the psychological landscape of their target customers — their characteristics, thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and behaviors. 

There are many brands that cater to the moods, behavior, personality types, and psychological functioning of individuals they intend to serve. We know that the way a health-conscious Nestle Water fan thinks, feels, and behaves can hardly ever be the same as an extreme sports maniac whose day can’t pass cheerfully without a can of Red Bull (and possibly many). 

Whether brands do care about the psychological preferences of their target customers is beside the point. The important thing is whether people care about brands that cater to their needs at different levels, including psychological — and they always do. If you’re a corporate employee, your preference for a car would be different than if you were a travel buff. If you’re a conservative type with a melancholic air for good old virtues, you may not prefer a Harley Davidson for a motorcycle brand. If you’re a jazz aficionado, you may not have much appreciation for Eminem’s hits. We make choices that don’t clash with our deeply-held values, our identities, and even our idiosyncrasies. The brands we carry around make a statement about who we are and who we wish to be, and so the choices we make can’t be hit or miss — they’re always deliberate and well-measured. 

In the final analysis, there’s no one factor that singularly stands out or reigns supreme in the minds of consumers when it comes to choosing brands. People are different and have different reasons to choose one brand over another. What’s important for brands, though, is to know who their customers are, what they want, and what they really believe in. Without these insights, the idea of building a successful brand won’t come to fruition. It’ll remain just what it’s destined to — a pipe dream. 

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