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There’s No Such Thing as a Brand-less Business

A new online retailer wants to make a splash in the business world by offering a range of nondescript everyday products for a mere $3. The name of the company is Brandless. (You can read the story here.) It’s an interesting idea, and we wish the entrepreneurs well, but we hope the moniker doesn’t confuse anyone about what constitutes a brand. Apparently, we’re also not the only ones to cast a skeptical eye at the name of this new enterprise.

Upon reading about the new company in the Wall Street Journal, Donald J. Boudreaux, Professor of Economics at George Mason University, penned a “letter to the editor.” He wrote:

“Regardless of its aspirations, a company called “Brandless” has a brand – namely, “Brandless.”  And the goods sold by that company are not generic; they’re branded.  The company’s targeted consumers, who allegedly are put off by brands, might indeed fancy that by buying products from a company named “Brandless,” they are cleverly escaping crass capitalist plots to overcharge for pointless marketing gimmicks.  But these consumers’ understanding of markets is mistaken.”

Professor Boudreaux also points out that whether people continue to buy the $3 products beyond a first purchase depends on the quality of the product being sold—which, in concert with the low price—will quickly establish a brand image for both the products and the retailer. (If you’ve ever been to Dollar Tree or Everything’s A Dollar stores, you get the idea.)

As Boudreaux indicates, the founders of Brandless are playing on the false understanding that brand equals promotion. They want you to believe the products they sell are foregoing a huge budget for brand marketing and passing the savings along to Brandless customers. It really never works that way, but regardless, all brands exist apart from marketing. Ultimately, a company’s image is in the eye of the beholder. Yes, marketing can communicate information about a brand, and it may try to highlight positive perceptions while minimizing the negative. Yet only individuals coming together can say how a brand is regarded. This helps explain the persuasiveness of word-of-mouth advertising; it’s unfiltered, honest brand communication right from the source.

In any event, we all like brands … so much so that we brand everything. (For example, you may have married one specific “brand” of a human being.) Recognizable brands save us time in locating and remembering things we like and help us stay away from things we’d rather avoid. Without brands, every trip to the supermarket would be like a 50-first-date of trial and error.