Should the Product Define the Brand?

Medium Read

“The difference between success and failure often lies not with the product, but with the brand.”

Matt Haig


We see brand failures again and again from businesses being too slow to adapt to the technological changes and consumer needs around them. The business graveyard does have its fair share of bad products, both new innovations from big companies – clear coke anyone? Or new concepts that just didn’t quite take off – Segway. However, many failures are from companies that have a decent product, but have a brand that limits their success. In this guide we probe deeper into the factors at play in a successful business, and the role of products and brands.


Do we buy products and features or do we buy brands?

Millions are poured into a faster, leaner, better products. CIO’s, innovation hubs and R&D departments are all laser focused on producing an innovative and improved product. These parts of the business are working away behind the scenes to make enhancements to products that we interact with every day, making new-to-market products that will have the extra edge that the competitors just don’t have.

But as consumers, do we buy products and features or do we buy brands? The short answer – it’s a careful balance of both. You’ll upgrade your phone to ensure it has the latest features but you’ll choose between two or three very closely matched competitors based on the brand. The challenge is that we know this, but it’s hard to prove. It’s particularly difficult to capture this in solid behavioural data as opposed to consumer behaviour theory.

Data is of course a powerful tool, but the challenge any brand has is that data will tell you what people buy, but won’t give you clear insight into why people are buying your product. New to market research companies such as ‘Proquo ai’ – are offering insights into the thoughts and feelings of buying behaviour and brand loyalty through data science. Although understanding data in this way is in its infancy, it leaves the question of  whether you can attribute a new feature to increasing sales – it could simply be because you’ve invested into marketing spend, and have therefore created more brand awareness amongst your potential customers.


Can you have a terrible product that has huge success?

I’ve personally witnessed business owners scrapping plans when the market testing of their product produces a flurry of negative feedback. But can a business actually have huge success even if the product is classed as ‘bad’?

Red Bull has defied the odds by having the highest market share of any energy drink in the world, with almost 6.8 billion cans sold in a year (as of 2018)[1]. But in the market research stages, the Red Bull drink fell flat. According to Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy UK, it’s rumoured that early consumer testing included comments such as “I wouldn’t drink this piss if you paid me to”. The early market research didn’t just show negative feedback of “it’s too sweet” or “it’s more for kids”, respondents from a wide demographic were almost angry about the taste. Despite this, Red Bull have found massive, cross-industry success. But how?

Red Bull have achieved greatness off the back of a really tight brand, with a strong message communicated across all of its marketing. The essence of their slogan ‘Red Bull gives you wings’, paired with stand-out packaging design in a streamlined can, as well as marketing efforts and sponsor partnerships related to sport and endurance activities, have seen Red Bull go on to fund a Formula 1 team, create massive live music events, run studios globally, and become the go-to extreme sports sponsor – not bad for an expensive energy drink that, according to some, ‘tastes like piss’!


Can an established brand be affected by a bad product?

As a rule of thumb, the larger the business the higher the chance that it will take the risk of investing in market research, and then bring a new product to market. This is usually as a response to a disruptor in the market or a competitor that is doing something new and interesting. Many of these are successful and bring great returns, but some are failures. The threat here is that the brand can become a victim of its own success. If a product fails, it’s the brand that’s most at fault as the product is no longer seen in isolation.

An example of this is Hewlett Packard, releasing its TouchPad in 2011. At the time, it was one of the most anticipated products and was going head to head in the tablet market with Apple’s iPad. Their large press event insured a huge buzz. However, HP then went quiet, and when the final product was released six months later it was an almost exact copy in design and the same price point of Apple’s iPad – just with worse software. As a result, it was discontinued almost immediately. The company reportedly wrote off $885 million in assets and incurred an additional $755 million in costs to wind down its production, ending all work on the TouchPad’s failed operating system. Since then, once dominant HP struggled to maintain its edge in the PC market, with the TouchPad fiasco markedly damaging their reputation.


So, what are the top 3 ingredients for success when launching a new product?

If you are considering launching a new product and want to ensure that you are reducing the chance of damaging the brand equity you have carefully built, consider the following 3 key ingredients;

  1. Obviously, having a great product that actually works is key. Consumers will reject a negative and bug-filled product, so ensure you provide as frictionless an experience as possible.
  2. Take care in planning a launch. If HP had held their launch event and then went live with the product in stores the very next day (or even at the launch), it may have been a very different story.
  3. Ask how your product is connecting to your brand purpose and story. This is often overlooked, but a product must be an extension of the brand. Many product failures are down to going a step too far. My favourite extreme example of this is Colgate, when they launched a frozen lasagna in the 1980’s. If you’re feeling confused by this link to ‘toothpaste’ don’t worry, I too shook my head in disbelief!


Overall, it is always important to remember that a product acts as a brand ambassador. In most cases it will directly affect how people view your brand as a whole. However, if like in Red Bull’s case you have a watertight brand which is versatile and recognizable, your products functionality (or taste in this case) doesn’t need to take centre stage. Brand is the core from which your products develop and evolve – if that is lacking then you are unlikely to get any meaningful traction, regardless of how great your product is.

[1] RedBull company declared sales