Guest Column - July/August 2008

It's the Brand, Stupid

By Mike Landry

hate that word. "Stupid." I grew up as the oldest of eight kids in a strict household, and there were certain words that were simply off limits. "Stupid" was one of them.

Variations on that phrase entered the popular lexicon not too many years ago when a presidential candidate was talking about people's voting tendencies as they related to the economy. His underlying point was that some things are so painfully obvious that they barely need be articulated.

Branding in 21st century America is probably one of these. As the incentive, corporate gifting and promotional product marketplaces evolve, the emergence of the brand becomes more and more important. In fact, brand often can be in a position to trump category and price point considerations.

Think about it. The simple process of buying food items at a grocery store has effectively been unchanged for decades. Commodities are brought into the retail environment, inventoried, displayed and sold. This process has not changed much since the '30s. You do your shopping, you come home and then you cook.

Today, you are buying anything but a commodity. For example, you no longer go to the grocery store to simply buy a head of lettuce. In recent years, more lettuce has been sold in bags than by the head at retail. And of course, these bags are all branded. And the choices—just in bagged, branded lettuce—are endless. Mediterranean mix? Veggie mix? Arugula? A touch of romaine? What size bag? What brand?

On a recent trip to my local hometown mid-sized grocery store, I counted a whopping 36 SKUs! The choice was daunting, and I hadn't even considered dressings yet. You don't just buy the raw ingredients to make your salad. You make your choice, you purchase the ready-made building blocks for your meal, and you would only bring home a brand that you trust.

Aspirational Inspiration

The pure aspirational factor is the engine that drives many incentive programs. Salespeople sell harder to hit their number if it's going to get them on a cruise ship, get them a DVD player or put a great bag on their shoulder. Delivery drivers log more accident-free miles if they know they are in line for a nice grill or a high-end fishing rod. People in any service industry are that much more helpful if there is the possibility that their efforts will be rewarded—perhaps on the spot with a gift card.

The ultimate reward can conceivably be interchangeable, and certainly there are different categories that fit better with certain program objectives. Much has been written about how gift cards do not pack the punch of travel or merchandise, but the reality is that in some applications, such as quick-turn and lower-budget programs, they make as much sense as anything else. In fact, we find that there can be a tremendous amount of effective synergy when merchandise, gift cards and travel are all used in the same program. The best of all of these have one thing in common. That's the brand.

Generic products, while allowing the sponsor to lower costs and deliver a lower program price point, have a direct and dramatic effect on the effectiveness of the program, as well. When generic merchandise and travel brands are used, more people can be included in a program with lower delivery costs, but the effectiveness becomes significantly diluted.

Would you work harder for a generic vacation on some unnamed cruise boat, or would a top-shelf, well-defined week aboard a cruise brand that you recognized with named destinations be more appealing? If you were piloting your delivery truck on a rainy night, would a nebulous "something" get you to be more alert at the next intersection, or would the fleeting thought of that big, professional-brand barbeque grill that you've always wanted in your backyard be more effective?

In the branded world in which we live, the power of a brand to ratchet up a consumer's expectation level is indisputable.