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The Madness of Picking Brands

We decide more on instinct than facts.

Article by
Tom Denari
President & CEO
Young & Laramore
Placeholder Image? The Madness of Picking Brands Hero

“Saint Mary’s is a five seed? They don’t sound very tough. Do you think they can really beat the Cowboys of Wyoming or the Indiana Hoosiers?

“Surely the Purdue Boilermakers will beat the smarty-pants guys at Yale, right?”

“And Baylor will obviously take Norfolk State. Heck, they won the whole thing last year.”

If you’re like the millions of Americans who are filling out their NCAA basketball tournament brackets this week, you’re participating in a nationwide demonstration of how brand strength can influence decision-making, well beyond facts and rational thought. It’s called March Madness®.

This sometimes nerve-racking exercise should serve as a great metaphor for how consumers actually make decisions when they choose between two brands. Despite the great advancements in brain research over the past few decades, too many marketers continue to cling to the conventional wisdom that consumers weigh all the facts before they make their purchase decisions, obsessing over each of ten bullet points that explain why their product is better than their competitors.

And yes, like the hyper-studious consumer who investigates the attributes of a product, some very obsessive “bracketologists” with nothing else to do will systematically identify each team’s BPI, free throw percentage, rebound differential and assist to turnover ratio. But the vast majority of people filling out a bracket simply make decisions based on a team’s “brand.”

As you make selections on your own bracket, this experience should be a reminder to you that facts don’t matter nearly as much as we’d like them to. Assembling and then weighing each team’s attributes is not only a time-consuming process, it can even confuse and stifle a final decision as the competing statistics and attributes make a final evaluation almost impossible.

Just like your bracket selections, consumers don’t really want to have to evaluate every product they buy in a clinical, analytical, rational way. They have lives to lead and are simply looking for shortcuts or clues that will help them make decisions quickly and effortlessly—and with some level of confidence. That’s what brands do for consumers. Effective brands work beyond facts and reason to tip the scales in their favor, even when the “facts” may say otherwise.

One of the simplest attractions of a brand is familiarity—“a name brand.” We think of name brands as those that have been around awhile: Duke, Kentucky and Kansas. Just like a product with a deep heritage and large media budgets, we often give these teams the benefit of the doubt when we’re picking, because we remember watching them through the years. Just like when you buy shampoo or razors, a name brand basketball team is typically considered a safe pick.

A few years ago in 2018, Loyola Chicago was not a safe pick and was selected by very few fans prior to the tournament. An eleven seed and definitely not a name brand, the Ramblers made an unlikely run to the Final Four, making its biggest booster, Sister Jean, a household name. And last year, Loyola made it to the Sweet Sixteen, upsetting number one seed Illinois as the then 101-year-old Sister Jean cheered them on. We’ll see if Loyola’s heightened brand awareness will propel fans to pick them over a much more familiar, and higher seeded Ohio State Buckeyes team this year.

Years ago, The Wall Street Journal acknowledged this phenomenon by creating its own “Blindfold Bracket” contest, encouraging a more unbiased approach to selecting teams. The system replaced the school names with random animal names and simply listed the basketball strengths and weaknesses. The idea was to eliminate “brand” perception by encouraging participants to make judgments based on a simple set of facts. Imagine going to BestBuy.com and selecting a flat screen television based on the comparisons of the specifications, without the benefit of the brand names.

This is not to say that facts and attributes have no place in consumers’ decision-making. Over time, consistent performance is what allows a brand to survive over time. Twenty-five years ago, Gonzaga was a little-known school in the Great Northwest. Now the Zags are a well-known program that’s projected as this year’s likely winner. Over time, their brand strength has grown, much like a highly performing product that generates repeat purchases.

While facts can support a brand message, they don’t have to be the message. A single, well articulated feature can help create a shortcut for consumers, as it can help people understand what a particular brand stands for. A long list of features may have the opposite effect, by simply filling the consumer with more information than they’re willing, or able to process. This exhaustive list of your product’s attributes may feel more like the pages of basketball statistics that will give me more information than I can process, making it more difficult to choose who would win it all this year. Instead, I’ll probably ignore all the facts and just default to one of the tried-and-true name brands.

And, that name brand this year will be Kentucky.

(I just hope they’re not out by the time you read this.)

Tom Denari, President & CEO at Y&L

As Young & Laramore’s president and CEO, Tom has overseen marketing and communications strategy— from audience observations to creative executions— for brands like Angie’s List, Goodwill, Stanley Steemer, and Steak n Shake. Tom’s expertise in developing sound communication strategy is guided by his continual study of how emotional and non-rational factors influence consumer decision-making, which he's written about regularly for Advertising Age.