Money ¢lip

Peeling back the label

Jack Murtha

I might as well kick off this column with a confession: I still use the same brand of deodorant that I wore 10 years ago. From high school gym class to the cubicle, I’ve relied on a single company to ward off attacks on my personal hygiene.

It’s not that I’m a shill for Old Spice. And my nostrils don’t sting with pain when I’m near those who opt for alternative means of protection. This allegiance boils down to a trust in the product to meet my expectations of what a stick of deodorant should do.

To build this brand loyalty, marketers must hammer a feeling of reliability into the brains of consumers, according to Sandy Becker, a marketing professor at Rutgers University. The practice has implications that soar far beyond deodorant, and into the realm of what we buy every day.

“Whether it’s a certain brand of shampoo, soap or detergent — or even if it’s your local mechanic or doctor — we tend to rely on those predictable opportunities because those results are very important to us,” Becker said. “It’s familiarity, comfort — and it lowers the risk of buying.”

In a cash-driven world, this fear of the unknown is one factor that overrides the price tag for most people, Becker said.

But that’s not always the case.

Let’s look at ketchup, for example. While I love the stuff, I don’t care about

¢ the name or what songs of praise are stamped on the label. Because of that, I usually buy cheaper, generic versions.

“Sometimes it’s price, but only when you feel that they’re all the same,” Becker said. “It’s what’s important to you. For you, ketchup is ketchup.”

According to the 2013 American Pantry Study conducted by Deloitte, more people chose to experiment with store brands last year than they did in 2011, but the total — 38 percent — still represents a minority. Nearly half of those polled said it “bothers” them to not always be able to buy the brands of their choosing.

So even in the pits of a nationwide recession, we still want our Cocoa Puffs instead of the cheaper counterpart that lacks a recognizable mascot. One of the most mind-boggling components of the brand is a testament to the power of influence, whether it comes from friends, advertising campaigns or tradition. Although it’s not a rule of thumb, major brand-name products are not necessarily superior to their little brothers, according to Daniel Butler, a vice president at the trade group the National Retail Federation.

“Many retailers have created their own brands to compete with national brands, and they can often be made in the same factory,” Butler said. “The quality is definitely there.”

The reality, he added, is that manufacturers consider the color of the packaging after the actual product.

If you’re in the mood to try a new brand, do your homework, Becker said. Hop on the Internet. There’s probably a wealth of voices with resolute opinions on the product that you have your eye on.

But remember: Just as those behind your favorite brands continue to make their cases for you to stay loyal, there are always other marketers whispering in your ear. Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series of columns about consumer issues.