Tappin’ the Power of Re-Branding


If someone offered me two unidentified glasses of wine
and asked me to assess their value, I’d get nervous.

Sure, I’d feign competence and do the swirl, sniff, and sip but, without any information about the products, I’d simply choose the more enjoyable and hope it was also the more “valuable.” Yes, this might mean I’d go with the bargain bin basic over the super-rare vintage from eons ago but, apparently, I’m not alone.

In “Life Lessons from an Ad Man,” the recently posted TED talk embedded above, Rory Sutherland explains how advertising adds value to a product by changing our perception of a product instead of changing the actual product itself. I know this notion may seem obvious, especially when directly discussed, but Sutherland’s examples highlight how persuasion has worked as a powerful marketing tool.

In terms of wine, Sutherland quotes the American Institute of Wine Economics [sic]*: “Except for among 5% or 10% of the most knowledgeable people, there is no correlation between quality and enjoyment in wine—except when you tell people how expensive it is, in which case they tend to enjoy the most expensive stuff more.”

Although Sutherland pokes fun at himself (saying he usually does Evil TED talks) I think his point is worth considering. At the risk of upsetting people who fundamentally detest the logic of marketing, what if we were to examine what re-branding has done for other fancy beverages—like, say, water? Tap water more specifically.

This brief blurb from the BBC suggests that people feel embarrassed to ask for tap water at restaurants. I wonder if it’s because they feel cheap or, worse, boring? In an age where you are what you eat, drink, and wear, where does tap water rank as a status symbol? Would it help if tap water was somehow, well, sexier?

As I wondered about this, I came across this UNICEF campaign video about branding tap water.

Now, the first half of the video feels like the guilt-inducing commercials that so many people mute on television. The images of starving children and murky waters remind us  how privileged we are…but then the music changes, the video starts moving faster, and the celebrities and cool t-shirts appear. Some may cringe but others, probably the previously disengaged, may perk up.

Sutherland suggests that things like guilt and duty simply don’t work as well as re-branding—unless you’re convincing the converted—so  I wonder if it makes more sense to simply do what works and deal with the discomfort selling social justice. I have to admit it feels a little disingenuous but I still think it’s an interesting conversation to have.

But wait, I’m not saying that I’m totally buying what Sutherland is selling–especially since marketing, if not done correctly, can just lead to fads, over-consumption surrounding the cause, and mere activist chic–but I am saying that we’re dealing with a water crisis here and it’d be silly to exclude approaches that might actual make ripples. Think globally, drink locally? (I bet you that’s been done.)

Ok, honestly, I’m interested to hear which half of  the UNICEF video you find more compelling…that is, if you find it compelling at all. More generally, what do you think of social marketing?

*Please note: Sutherland misspoke. It’s actually the American Association of Wine Economists, not institute of wine economics. The hyperlink above takes you to the study he references.

Here are some more resources to whet our appetites for discussion:

Tap water campaign challenges bottled water” The Telegraph (UK)
Inside the Bottle, a Polaris Institute campaign designed to stimulate awareness and action about the bottled water industry.
Tap Water Campaign from Metro Vancouver
Spreading white lies about bottled water, from http://www.coolhunting.com


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