Marque of Excellence or Badge of Convenience

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February 08, 2013

by Ian Horritt


Historically brands were an indicator of quality. They were shorthand for the fact that the people who produced the product were happy that it bore their name. Consumers could buy branded products and trust that they were getting something of a consistent standard that reached a certain quality level. So what’s changed?

Firstly, brands have become totally ubiquitous. Everything is branded. If you think about any consumer situation the choice is between one brand or another. Even “unbranded” products usually have brands, we just don’t notice them as they have no presence outside the store they were created by. Even shops or concessions are now brands so that when we buy a coffee at a service station or on a train it is simply impossible to avoid at least one brand. To be truly “unbranded” involves taking a stand against society in general rather than making a one off consumer decision.

Obviously this undermines what it means to be branded per se and shifts the issue into “what does the brand stand for?” This is often much harder to work out than it used to be. In an age where we are happy to talk about “value brands” what does such a brand stand for? Does it stand for low price? If so, what does the price stand for? What is the relationship between the two? The visual appearance of a product and its pack will often utilise premium category codes to position the product “higher up” the value chain than it really is so these cues are often filtered out.

Another factor is the portability of brands. A brand can be bought and sold as if it were a NFL franchise with no regard for anything it stands for. I could buy the Rolls Royce brand tomorrow and stick it to the front of a child’s tricycle. It wouldn’t do the brand much good but wouldn’t contravene any law or trade regulation. The history of many of the FMCG brands around us is now one of exchange and consolidation. Heritage is something they aspire to rather than own by right.

And this brings us to Findus. Perhaps never a premium brand or a particularly aspirational one it did serve an important purpose. It offered what brands used to: a guarantee of quality at the bottom end of a fairly commoditised market. Given recent events the brand may well suggest exactly the opposite of this to the precise audience who bestow value on brands in the first place: consumers.

If production is outsourced, pack manufacture is outsourced, distribution is via a third party and the product is sold in a large multiple retailer what is it that the brand owners are doing? Are they the champions of quality in the process? Are they the force for good that represents the consumer? Or are they simply milking the brand for all it is worth until all the value has been eroded?

The best brands realise that their product is a huge component of the brand. How it is made (Apple), how it is sold (banks), how staff are treated (HMV) and what is in it (Tesco) are things that consumers have the right to trust in. Brands and products can be thought about separately, managed separately, even bought and sold separately but eventually the disconnect will be found out.

Social media is achieving what the weak UK food regulators never managed and removing many of the hiding places that have allowed this race to the bottom - long may it continue.