In the 19th century a French chemist, Angelo Mariani, created a tonic composed of Bordeaux wine and cocaine called Vin Mariani. Vin Mariani was extremely popular and had several ‘celebrity’ endorsements to encourage consumption. Queen Victoria of Great Britain and Ireland, Pope Leo XIII and Thomas Edison all endorsed the tonic; Edison claimed it helped him stay awake to work for long hours. In addition to appearing on a poster endorsing the beverage, Pope Leo also awarded a Vatican gold medal to the wine.
Needless to say, the value of brand perception has only perpetuated since the days of legal cocaine wine. In today’s celebrity obsessed world, a brand perception can be changed by a specific endorsement - look no further than the Air Jordan franchise. The Air Jordan brand, launched in 1984 when Michael Jordan was emerging as a star basketball player, built a huge fandom. He elevated the popularity of the NBA, his own personal brand, and by association, Nike’s Air Jordan line. In 2010, Air Jordan generated $1 billion in annual sales for Nike.
The Risk of Brand Associations
Just as an endorsement can promote a brand, it can also hinder it. Brand perception is so powerful it’s a huge factor as to why brands will drop endorsements in a grand, public display. After his scandal, few brands maintained relationships with Tiger Woods because they didn’t want any association with adultery tarnishing their brand. After the scandal surrounding Woods’ affair became public, major brands like Tag Heuer cut off ties with Woods and that year he lost $22 million in endorsements. When celebrities provide their image to brands, consumers associate the brand with that celebrity, for better or for worse.
Transparency and Authenticity
Some companies focus heavily on their perception by demonstrating their transparency and authenticity. “Made in the USA” or “Fair Trade” products have become synonymous with brands taking the extra step to ensure labor quality and safety, and not cutting corners to shave some expenses from the bottom line. By adding these labels, these brands elevate their perception by positioning themselves as a premium product. We see this with American Apparel, who manufactures all of their clothing in downtown Los Angeles and advocates for fair wages. For more examples, read about Everlane and Authenticity.
Perceptions of Altruism
Companies can also use donations, kindness, or reciprocation as a powerful brand perception tool. Toms Shoes is a great example of this - for every shoe you purchase, Toms donates a pair of shoes to a child in a developing country. People feel like they’re doing a service by purchasing Toms, and that themselves are providing a child in need with a pair of shoes by supporting this type of company. It’s a brilliant form of reciprocity; with this method, Toms can act as a for-profit company alongside a nonprofit organization and build a reputation for both simultaneously. To this day, Toms has donated over 10 million pairs of shoes.
Perception: More Powerful than Truth
Society’s perception of your brand can be tarnished based on misleading media reports or misconstrued facts. In 2010, Toyota recalled 2.3 million vehicles for accelerator pedal problems. Several consumers had experienced involuntary acceleration, which for some, led to accidents. By the end of 2010 there were 21 deaths affiliated with the accelerator issue. NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) and NASA launched an investigation to look into the Toyota pedal acceleration issues. In February 2011, NHTSA and NASA released its findings into the 10 month investigation and concluded that there wasn’t any electronic defects in Toyota’s vehicles. Instead, the investigation found that driver error and pedal misapplication were responsible for the acceleration incidents. Even though Toyota was cleared of shoddy electrical work, the perception of Toyota’s being dangerous cars tarnished their brand. By Toyota’s estimation, they lost the sales of 100,000 potential vehicles - about 5.6% of US sales - due to the investigation and negative publicity.
How Much Can Be Controlled?
While brands make an immense effort to shape and control the perception of their image, it is ultimately the consumer who decides what it is. That’s why it’s so important to listen to your customers and the public to get constant evaluations. Customers provide feedback about what they think of their experience, the product, and why they made the decision to become a customer. Even demographics and other analysis can lead to hints of who-thinks-what of you. The general public has just as much to say, especially about why they aren’t a customer. It’s often harder to get opinions from strangers. That’s why it is just as important for brands to engage people in authentic mediums such as social media and other real time interaction forums.