Brand vs Brain...

An unexpected flying visit back to Sydney saw me make a pilgrimage to my old haunt of Auburn, a place which makes a good training ground for those about to be deployed to Helmund Province. However, the establishment of the second Costco store in Australia there has really made it a must visit for those who want internet prices and a real world store safety blanket. And let's pull no punches - Costco is the finest bricks and mortar general goods store on earth, both in concept and execution. When I want to see lean, mean, smart and efficient in retail, it just doesn't get any better than this.

And with this visit, I caught something which made me realize both the power of branding and the sad state of the consumer mindset in much of the Western consumer...or at least the small numbers of Western consumers who can still afford to be choosy.

One thing you notice about Costco is that it is most egalitarian about shelf space: prince and pauper can easily be housemates. Look at this photo: these are $AU prices for jeans (yes, my American friends, laugh all you want at how much Aussies pay...). On the left, the Hugo Boss and Joes, on the right, Urban Star (made in Pakistan) and Costco's ubiquitous house brand, Kirkland Signature. 

I had a good chance to look at all the brands right next to each other. To me, the quality and feel of the denim, the cut, the stitching and everything about the Kirkland and Urban Star jeans were as good - and dare I say better? - than either the Hugo Boss or Joes. Style I can't comment on (I have none, as people keep telling me), but really, they all looked pretty much the same to me. And honestly, do people really stare right at your ass to check out your jeans label?

The choice is rarely as stark as it is here at Costco: you can compare the products side by side. And those prices are mocking you in the face saying "Are you REALLY going to pay THIS much for THIS when you can get THAT for THAT?". The difference in price between the Urban Star and Joes jeans is 750%, a gap that surely makes anyone who has more than 3 neurons firing between their ears go for the absolute bargain choice.

The thing is...many people seem to be thinking the word 'bargain' as defined along the lines of "Wow! Hugo Boss jeans are usually $ THAT'S a bargain!". And speaking to the Costco staff, the Hugo Boss and Joes Jeans were selling at a ratio of around 1 to 3 compared to their more pedestrian competition. 

And that is the power of the brand...overwhelming the power of the brain. But that is the reality, and it is something we all need to accept, as hard as it initially was for me many years ago.

Jeans are not cars. The utility and feature difference of a pair of jeans is hardly of the same order or importance to that between a Toyota Camry and Lexus LS460. But many people, when they have the money, place a real emphasis on brand even when the objective utility of the product does not justify it.

To me, clothes exist primarily to stay warm/cool/dry when the weather moves out of the desired upper or lower specification limits...and if the weather is in the acceptable range, about their only justification is to stop me from being arrested for public nudity laws.

But is that the sort of thinking that most people have?


Branding is something I have been working more extensively with for many years, and it's a learning curve for someone who came from a world of statistics, data...the quantitative world of hard, if sometimes hidden, facts. But branding is something that delves into an area where the normal rules of logic and common sense are far less rigid, so it requires a new way of thinking. It's complex and not easy to nail down fully all the time, but it appears that Hugo Boss and Joes Jeans have succeeded, no matter how cheap and equivalent the alternative.

Now that does take some brains...