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March 3, 2011

It’s all in the mind.

by Howard Fox Chartered Marketer

Methylenedioxymethamphetamine. Hardly rolls off the tongue. Perhaps you know it by its popular name – Ecstasy? What you probably don’t know (or perhaps shouldn’t admit to knowing!) is that ecstasy is commonly branded. So the fundamental question is: why do drug dealers brand their wears?

When you strip all the complexities we add as marketers, it’s a simple principle: the addition of a brand differentiates one good from another and turns it from a commodity (which economists tell us are “fungible” – that is its the same, no matter who produces it) into something for which consumers can develop a preference. So drug-dealers want the unfortunate drug addict to recognise and ask for their particular product. Given that ecstasy is primarily “retailed” in tablet form, this means they literally brand their tablets in the original sense of the word. This is achieved using an imprint on the tablet – often taken from mainstream brands such as well-known car marques. There is a fascinating resource on the web showing over 300 ecstasy brands (and you think you operate in a competitive market!) but decorum dictates that I don’t promote the link. But I can tell you that apart from a brand imprint there is also a range of differentiated colours and shapes. The point is, are our brands really differentiated on attributes which are important to our consumers? Or do we get excited and brief our agencies to promote differentiated attributes, which consumers actually don’t care about? For drug addicts, there is only one important attribute associated with a particular brand of e: the phamalogical effect. Colour of the tablet, while highly differentiating, is not important to the consumer at all. So the fundamental question is: How often do we as marketers emphasis brand attributes which, while highly differentiating, are not really important to consumers at all?

We all know why they are called brands, right? From the old days of branding cattle. But nowadays brands primarily exist in our markets heads’. Sure there are usually clues, such as a “swoosh” (no name needed for you to recognise this particular brand – to the extent that they no longer even need to mention their name in advertising). So here is a fundamental question for you: Do consumers need to be able to see a brand logo and be in a position to physically differentiate between a branded and unbranded product for the brand’s impact to be worth the investment by marketers?

I wear glasses. I also know that Carl Zeiss is a good brand. But given that my optometrist supplies my trendy-marketing-man eyewear, how would I know that the lenses are genuine Carl Zeiss glassware? Because they brand them, that’s how. Right on the lenses “We laser engrave a tiny “Z” into all ZEISS branded lenses before they leave our plants. The Z icon is engraved into the side of the lens closest to the eye.” “The ZEISS quality seal is visible only when you look at the lens, not when you look through it.” So now I can look at my glasses and be reassured they are a brand I can trust. This remains in my head in spite of the fact that I am the only one who knows and under normal circumstances even I can’t see the branding.

At Lead SA's birthday

At Lead SA’s birthday.

What if the consumer can’t even see the branding at all? Take diamonds for instance, unbranded they are a commodity (albeit an expensive one), but branded they are immediately differentiated and can create preference – even if the branding is invisible to the naked eye. The relevant case study is De Beers ‘Forevermark’ branded diamonds: “The symbol is invisible to the naked eye, measuring only 1/20th of a micron deep and can (only) be seen with a special Forevermark viewer.” (emphasis by author).

So what is the point? Let’s never forget that fundamentally brands exist in our markets heads. Best we make sure that we differentiate them on attributes which are actually important to the owners of those heads.


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