We’ve been told that great branding can’t save a not-so-great product. That in the end, quality wins out over compelling marketing.
But today, with branding so focused on storytelling that it’s all but impossible to not fall down a rabbit hole every now and then, is that still true?
Maybe not—especially when you realize there are already a few industries that have always made the brand the point. Take fashion for example: Focusing on brand over product is why some people are willing to pay $50 more for a golf shirt with a tiny horse on the front.
This phenomenon of the product taking a back seat to branding is transcending fashion. You could already see inklings of backlash with Sprite’s inescapable “Image is nothing. Thirst is everything.” campaign from the ’90s.
This new paradigm has some troubling implications. It allows brands to perpetuate—and to succeed wildly in some cases—in spite of inferior products.
Which isn’t to say that’s simple to do. Branding and selling will always be easier if the product is actually good. But if the product is bad—yet sells in droves—it’s a remarkable feat of marketing worth examining.
Here are three brands that have pulled it off.
Beats by Dre. Back in 2014, Apple purchased Beats Electronics for $3 billion; it remains their most expensive acquisition to date by about $2.5 billion. It’s still an absurd price if Beats were God’s gift to headphones—but what makes it worse is that even in 2014 they were widely reviewed as average at best.
When disassembled, a standard pair of $199 Beats headphones is full of surprises—all of them bad. A few highlights: Important hinges and connected parts are made of flimsy plastic, metal weights are added to make the headphones heavier, and the packaging costs more to produce than the actual product. And the sound quality? Compared to similarly priced (and cheaper) competition, any audiophile will tell you it’s an objective disaster.
And yet Beats remains king of the headphones after years of negative press thanks to some smart celebrity-focused marketing. Even Volkswagen recognizes the power of the Beats brand: They just rolled out an ad campaign for the 2019 Jetta that highlights the Beats speaker system as a “hot” feature. (On a side note: You know your car company might be in trouble when your selling point is speakers.)
Grey Goose Vodka. Sidney Frank, the founder of Grey Goose, created his brand before ever distilling a single bottle of vodka. The name, bottle, and look of Grey Goose was set before production; he produced the vodka in France only because he believed a French-made product seemed more premium.
Mr. Frank deliberately priced Grey Goose to be twice as expensive as the average bottle of vodka. The only major high-end competition at the time was from Absolut, so he made his vodka even more expensive to make people think it was higher quality. The only thing higher was the price.
While Grey Goose is far from terrible, there’s no doubt you can get plenty of brands for much cheaper that consistently rank better in taste tests. But by focusing almost exclusively on the brand rather than the product, Sidney Frank built a massive following for his vodka that resulted in a $2 billion sale to Bacardi Limited.
Southwest Airlines. There are plenty of people who only fly Southwest. The brand has a cult-like following that’s surprising once you consider the facts: Their flights aren’t cheaper than the competition, they cut costs by running their planes harder and more often than any other airline, and they have a long history of safety violations that resulted in a record-high fine levied by the FAA.
And yet due to magnificent branding, few seem to care. Southwest stock has shown steady improvement over the last five years, even though they are (for lack of a better term) flying by the seat of their pants. It’s all due to perceived brand intimacy, a feeling that the brand is “on your side” that’s created by emotionally resonant marketing.
So can a company be successful based only on the strength of their brand? The answer depends on goals. If they’re looking to make lots of money fast—and want to be positioned for a lucrative acquisition—the answer is yes. But to work, the branding needs to be killer.
This also raises a question about our obligation as marketers. If it’s easy for us to be dishonest, misleading, to obfuscate—and it’s getting us outstanding results—why would we stop?
Some of us probably wouldn’t. But those of us who are looking to build long-lasting, perhaps even generational client relationships know that truly timeless companies—Apple, Dove, Mercedes—understand that the brand and product must work hand-in-hand. They know that marketing a sketchy product almost always means outright lying to your customer base; at the very least it requires subtle deceit. And in the long run—even if that’s years or decades from now—that’s bad for business.
Consumers will put up with it if they’re in love with the brand—for a time. But they can only be pushed so far. How far they’re willing to be pushed—at least these days—is what’s truly remarkable.