The Power Of Branding

By | Monday, October 11, 2010 2 comments
My niece turned 10 a couple weeks ago. Kind of a big deal since it's into double-digits and all, so my brother and sister-in-law gave her a big party. Not surprisingly, my brother asked about some of the particulars my niece would be interested in. What kind of presents she wanted, what kind of cake to have, etc. Somewhere in there, the birthday party became a sleep-over and so one of the questions was, "What would you like for breakfast once everybody wakes up?" My niece answered that she wanted Dunkin' Donuts. Because Dunkin' Donuts are better than regular doughnuts and she never gets to have Dunkin' Donuts because they're more expensive and so they never go there.

My brother then starts doing some of the math in his head, and suggests that maybe regular doughnuts from the grocery store would be just as good. After all, Dunkin' Donuts are more expensive than what he could get from the grocery store and, with a dozen young girls sleeping over, that's going to add up to a decent chunk of change in what's still a tight economy. But, no, she insisted that it had to be Dunkin' Donuts.

So my brother heads off to Dunkin' Donuts. But instead of buying anything, he just asks for a box. An empty box that most people don't see unless it's filled with doughtnuts. Or at least the obvious remnants of doughnuts before everyone ate them. They gave him the box. For free. An empty box with their logo on it. He then went to the grocery store and bought some regular doughnuts. Which he then proceeded to arrange neatly in the Dunkin' Donut box. He took the box of doughnuts home, and the girls were all delighted and said those were the best doughnuts ever and thanks so much for getting Dunkin' Donuts because those are so much more awesome and he's the best dad ever, etc.

What my brother realized, of course, was that a logo and an ad campaign don't necessarily make something better. It's just perceived as more desirable because the company spent more money on marketing. It's not uncommon really. Perception IS reality more often than not, which is why many companies do so much better than others -- not because they have a better product/service, but because they've done a better job at telling people they have a better product/service.

So I wonder how much of that plays in with comics. Because comics, though, deal with intellectual property, there aren't generally exact substitutes for characters. If you like Batman, there's only one company who publishes Batman comics. If you like a series of comics where Spider-Man, the Hulk and Wolverine can and do interact, you have to get those from Marvel. But if you are just looking for superheroes with real-world problems and act in a reasonably realistic way, there are any number of publishers where you can get that from. If you're looking for wise-cracking space-faring cosmic heroes or emotionally charged monster hunters or whatever, there are multiple outlets for that.

I wonder how many comic readers think about that. Are they buying Detective Comics (or whatever) because it does the best job of providing what they want or because, well, it's Batman! And how many people don't take a look at comics that aren't published by one of the big names precisely because they're not a big name? I mean, I can see that some indie books just don't have the distribution of a typical Marvel or DC book, so any number of people will never see it in the first place, but do some people actually see some of those books and dismiss them out of hand because it doesn't have a Marvel logo on it?

It's a difficult question, I think. At some level, a glazed doughnut is a glazed doughnut is a glazed doughnut regardless of where it comes from. (I, for one, can't taste a difference between the ever-popular Krispy Kreme and just about anybody else's. They've got the still-warm thing going for them if you get them fresh, but that doesn't impact the taste at all.) But comic books aren't quite at the level of commodification that doughnuts are, so direct comparisons are imperfect at best. But it still makes me wonder how much people are buying the company logo over the characters inside?
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Matt K said...

I love the sneakiness of that Dunkin' Donuts trick. It does set an unfortunate precedent for giving in to "pester power" but, hey, it's the kid's birthday rather than every day.

And if this young person ever finds out, well, that will be a valuable lesson in various things. :-)

As for comics implications, boy, that's complicated. For one thing I think a lot of the big Marvel and DC properties trade on nostalgia, to a significant extent, and so in that sense I think the question you raise about whether there are any true substitute products becomes important.

There's also the fact that, unlike donuts, the small outfits in comics are (for various reasons) mostly selling their books for as much if not more than the big brand leaders. People may still be missing out on some things (more-original story, perhaps) by remaining "brand loyal" but probably aren't paying any cost premium, all other things being equal.

I should also note that, while I don't know how much non-designers do this, personally there are occasions where I consciously consider otherwise-similar products and intentionally pay more for nice packaging, or at least assign real value to it in making a price/utility decision. I've written about this kind of thing on my blog a few times.

Obviously though, there are limits; will I pay a bit extra for a nicer edition of a book? Sure. Will I buy Crown Royal ($12 of blended American whiskey along with about $14 worth of bottle, bag and box)? No.


Unknown said...

I agree so much with your post about marketing and branding.

there are two comic book fans. There are those who purchase Detective comics out of habit because they were intro'ed to it since they were children BUT read several other titles and appreciate those titles more because of the writing and characters. Then you have those fans who just purchase Marvel and Dc because of the movies, Wolverine, Superman, etc.

thats my answer...