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May 19, 2009 | Comments

I’m surprised I hadn’t heard about this 2007 study on branding and search engines.

In the study, participants searched for terms on Google, Yahoo, and MSN, but the researchers modified the sites so that identical search results were presented. Participants were asked to rate the accuracy of the search results on each site.

Even though the search results were identical, participants rated Google, Yahoo, and MSN unequally. When searching for “manufacturing home,” they rated Google 50% more precise than MSN and Yahoo.

This a marketer’s dream: consumers rating your product favorably even though its functional performance is identical to competitors.

The Google results do not surprise me. I’ve noticed many superior brands outshine inferior competitors,  even if product performance sucks. It’s a engineering conundrum. How can you compete against a well-branded competitor when designing a better product means nothing?

It’s exactly why Warren Buffet invests in Coca-cola, and he has a quirky parable to explain his logic, “if someone were to give you a few billion dollars and ask you to compete with Coca-Cola, you’d find out quickly that it simply cannot be done.” If you’ve ever witnessed Coke vs. Pepsi taste tests, you would probably agree with Buffet. Even if both glasses are filled with Pepsi (i.e., identical search results), testers will exclaim that they are 100% sure that Cup 1 contains Coca-Cola and it is far superior to Cup 2 Pepsi.

Other favorite examples:

  • Tide Laundry Detergent (40% market share) cleans no better than the others
  • Budweiser and Miller competition has little do with taste
  • Intel processors, for general purposes, perform the same as AMD

It’s impressive. How do companies create strong brands, causing consumers to ignore the functional reasons that should stimulate purchase?

I think the answer lies in the direction that companies are beginning to take brands. When I heard Rob Walker speak on branding (per my last post), he mentioned the Dove for Real Beauty campaign. It epitomizes what  brands are beginning to represent–a emotional stance and position on the world. Dove, an intangible concept, takes a stance on beauty. Google, in its branding force, takes a stance on the organization of information.

And if the brand manager’s done a good job, the consumer is aware of this positioning subconsciously and associates Google favorably over Yahoo and MSN, even if the sites perform identically.

Whether intentionally or not, Marginal Revolution asked this same topic to readers: Why is Tide so popular? It owns almost half of the detergent market, and “I couldn’t name one supposed feature of the product and I’ve been buying detergent my whole life.”

I’ll wrap my head around the Tide enigma for the next post.

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  • Hey Alex,

    Can't agree more---design caused the respondents to judge Google as superior to MSN and Yahoo. Their visual identity (logo, search box, nav) is a simple cue. But I doubt most people use Google over other search engines because of design. Rather, it's function (providing better/more accurate search results) is perceived as superior.

  • The examples you mentioned, specifically the Google example, I think are aspects of design. Obviously, design is part of branding. But, if there is one aspect of branding that will cause an emotional reaction, it will be how we perceive design.

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