Unreal attributes, Irrelevant attributes, Brand Uniqueness, and Real differentiation

Consumer’s mind is a space where brands with their attributes/benefits intersect with consumer buying criteria. Winning in this space depends upon how a brand sets itself apart from competing brands on a relevant (appropriate/ pertinent to a context), meaningful (opposite of meaningless, inconsequential) and valued (desirable/of worth) attribute. Consider the following:
When a shampoo brand like H&S communicates that it contains Zinc Pyrithione (ZPTO), this attribute is relevant, meaningful because it helps fighting dandruff and is of worth for people seeking solution to their dandruff problem. But this attribute is not differentiating if other brands are also perceived to have ZPTO.
In an old study, Carpenter, Glazer and Nakamoto explored how meaningful brands can be created out of meaningless differentiation. They started with two examples: Folger’s coffee differentiated itself on the ground that it has ‘flaked coffee crystals’ and Alberto Natural Silk shampoo set itself apart with the proposition,’ ‘we put silk in a bottle’. Are these attributes flaked coffee and silk in a shampoo bottle meaningful? The flaked form of coffee does not improve taste in instant category and silk does not do anything to hair. In both cases these claimed attributes imply benefits but in reality do not create any. These attributes, however, do create differentiation which is meaningless. The question arises does meaningless differentiation create meaningful brand by creating positive impact on consumer response?
Meaningless attribute creates meaningful value: shape of coffee granules does not improve coffee taste yet it may be perceived to create value. Consumer may still infer benefit of an attribute which is meaningless (e.g. coal in a toothpaste technically may not have any effect on gums or teeth yet this attribute can be differentiating and imply benefit to customer). This may happen because some consumers may not be aware of its irrelevance and some may be unable to judge attributes true value (no difference in taste between flaked or non-flake coffee) or some consumers may simply just not care.
Value due to mere information : Consider again the example of ‘coal’ in toothpaste, consumer may not be able to experience the difference that coal causes to brushing yet consumers have a tendency to confirm advertised claims in their experience. The objectively uninformed consumers exhibit this tendency. Second, the mere communication of an irrelevant attribute may cause customers to value it (message in ads). For instance, a hotel may display a sign stating ‘we honor our guests’ (no hotel would dishonor its guest- meaningless/ semantically uninformative). This would automatically cause customers to think why they are telling us. The statement is valuable just because it is communicated. Why would some toothpaste brand contain coal, it must be valuable. Third, this value attachment to an irrelevant attribute works more when it is distinctive (not shared by others) rather than common (there is only one toothpaste brand with coal). Further, novelty factor (newness) of the irrelevant attribute also causes it to be viewed favorably. When brands are compared, the brand with irrelevant unique attribute is likely to enjoy greater salience.
What effect do these factors of attribute uniqueness (uncommon), novelty (newness) and salience (prominence) have on consumer behavior? Consumers are short on cognitive resources and want to simplify buying decisions. In this regard, the irrelevant attribute may offer an easy short cut to deal with complexity of multi attribute decisions making by shift o a single attribute decision.


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