“Would You Rather Have a Better Brand or Better Product?”: A Response to Al Ries

(Reading Time: 3 minutes)

Recently, marketing guru Al Ries published a piece in Advertising Age, with his thesis right there in the title:

“Having a Better Brand Is Better Than Having a Better Product”

Here are a few excerpts from Mr. Ries’ piece:

There are no facts. Everything in life is “perceptions.” There are no superior products. There are only superior perceptions in consumers’ minds.

What else do we know about perceptions? They are very difficult to change. Once a person holds a strong perception about a specific brand, it’s extremely difficult to change that perception.

Developing a better coffee than Starbucks is a simple task compared to developing a better perception than Starbucks in consumers’ minds.

I’ll be the last guy to argue with Mr. Ries’ take on the power of perception. But I will take issue with his thesis, largely because it implies that “better product or better brand” is a choice that you, as a brand leader, may actually face.

Better Brand or Better Product: It’s Not Either/Or

Mr. Ries’ thesis implies that there is a choice – a better brand OR a better product. This is a false construct.

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 3.45.45 PMOur task as brand leaders is to develop better products, experiences and perceptions. If your head of marketing tells you he can deliver either a better brand or a better product, but not both, fire him. Immediately.

Perceptions don’t last forever, and product superiority evolves over time.  Both must be managed.

Better Brand or Better Product: They’re Not Separate Concepts

Mr. Ries’ thesis could also imply that brand and product are mutually exclusive concepts. Of course, they’re anything but. Brand perceptions are shaped by many things, and the performance of the product is certainly high on the list.

Mr. Ries used the example of Apple in his article, so I’ll use it too. Apple grew a base of brand evangelists because their products performed. People loved them for this, and their brand perceptions were strengthened.

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 3.44.17 PMAs a heavy Apple user, I’ve learned that the perception of Apple products as infallible – “they just work” – is not always true. A review of Apple discussion boards would indicate I’m not alone in this perception. To those of us that think this way, Apple’s brand has weakened somewhat, largely as a function of product.

The same is true for any product and brand. If your brand has strong positive perceptions, you will undermine those perceptions by releasing poor products. If you want to enhance your brand perceptions, launching better products is certainly advisable.

Better Brand or Better Product: It Ignores Targeting

It’s also worth remembering that “better” is relative. It means different things to different people.

Consider buyers in the market for a new automobile. A heavy commuter may rank gas mileage as the most important criterion. A parent may value safety. The over-compensating playboy will opt for the yellow Ferrari.

It’s certainly desirable to hold the general perception as “best” in a given category. But smart challenger brands know that significant inroads can be made by being the “best” for a particular group of people. Who you serve is every bit as important as how.

A Better Question to Ask

Ultimately, the question implied by Al Ries – “Would you rather have a better brand or better product?” – is irrelevant.  It won’t help you make any brand management decisions.

A better question to ask is this: “What are we doing today to ensure our success tomorrow?” This requires a deep knowledge of the needs of those you serve, and an understanding that product and perception are both critical to market success.

It’s about the choices you make. But it helps to focus on the right questions.


About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2014 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.