Brandless was Based on a False Assumption

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Spend enough time focusing on one thing and you’ll discover all its faults.

For instance, I’ve spent a lot of time over the years with filmmakers – people that live and breathe the film industry. Many are pessimistic about the industry itself, deriding the majority of studio-produced films and lamenting the sad state, and future death, of film as art. Just ask Martin Scorsese, who notoriously threw shade at the Marvel franchise of films as “not cinema,” comparing them to theme parks.

Whether he is right or wrong, the reality is that most people don’t think this way. And what I mean by “most people” is the vast majority of the audiences for film. Most people love movies, love to be entertained, and don’t put the same narrow definitions on cinema that people who spend their entire life creating cinema does.

When you spend your life in the pursuit of a craft, you become distinctly educated and aware of the entirety of that craft. It’s like a long-term relationship – the more you get to know someone, the more you become aware of their faults. And those faults get annoying.

This is my take on the fall of Brandless. It’s not about whether they were or were not a brand, it’s that their underlying assumption was false. People are not “tired of brands” or sick of paying a “brand tax.” The marketers who created the brand of Brandless may be tired of brands, but consumers are not.

People buy things in their own self-interest. They buy things that align with how they see themselves, or better yet, the “self” they strive to be.

People connect with brands emotionally. Brandless attempted to remove that emotion, with the assumption that we would make the choice to buy their products entirely rationally.

The problem is, people are emotional creatures. In fact, this study supports the notion that we require an emotional connection or response before our brains can even begin the process of rational decision-making.

Calling out brands as a “tax” on what we buy undermines the entire existence of brands (and I get it, that was their point). The economic reason why we create brands is to increase a product’s perceived value. And, not surprisingly, great products typically beget great brands. Bill Bernbach famously said, “nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising.” I would add a corollary that it is almost impossible to create long-term brand value with a bad product. My point? Great products deserve their greater value.

Value, as well, is directly correlated to price. The extremely low price of the Brandless products actually lowered the perceived value. People are not only willing to pay more for “better” – they actually want to. Water brand Liquid Death understands this, even as others still question their success.

Let’s assume you live in an area with clean, publicly available water. Why on earth would you pay anything at all for water? Forget my own personal objections to the waste that bottled water creates, this exemplifies the power (and continued relevance) of brands.

The older I get, the more I want to simplify my life. I love the idea of minimalism. I have a goal of “less, better things.” In a dream, I would have Marie Kondo take a visit to our house. She would ask me about the things I own – do they bring me joy?  I can’t think of any material possession I own that brings me joy that isn’t a brand.

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