Building brands in a changing society

How I rediscovered the value of brands

It took moving to a new country in a developing region to teach me how much I take trusted household brands for granted. Coming from North America, I typically put little thought into purchase decisions for basic household items; fast-moving consumer goods are purchased on autopilot. However, the products and brands that usually exist in background come to the foreground when a home needs to be restocked from scratch.

This would presumably be a relatively easy task in my new home in Singapore, an affluent nation where most goods are imported and global brands are commonplace. It seems that everything and anything is available at a price, even fresh organic milk from California for those willing to pay an exorbitant amount per litre. Still, the first few visits to local supermarkets and convenience stores offered a bewildering selection of unknown regional brands and generic options.

My quest to find a decent dish soap is a typical example. It’s a low investment category; everyone uses it and no one wants to think twice about it. Instead of the familiar brands from home – Sunlight, Dawn, Palmolive – I discovered a new world of regional brands: UIC Big Value and Yuri Ligent from Singapore; Labour, Kim Poh and Zip from Malaysia; Mama Lemon from Japan; the list goes on. Faced with unfamiliar choices at shelf, I relied on any clues I could find: a familiar parent company listed on the back, a label design that appeared somehow trustworthy, credible product claims.

I even had a short-lived experiment with a dish soap positioned as “green.” In North America, if a green brand is going to be successful, it needs to deliver against sustainability claims while holding its own against leading brands on performance. This wasn’t a limitation for the soap I tried; the claims on the package tended to be more aspirational than factual.

The experience of picking all new products made me realize how much we depend on familiar brands to be a shortcut to quality. We may not spend much time reflecting on those brands; there are only so many occasions when household cleaners and other everyday categories demand full attention. Still, even for the most basic product, after years of advertising exposure and personal experience, the brand becomes invested with a meaning that may only become clear when it’s no longer available.

In the end, I landed on Mama Lemon, which seems to do the job just fine.


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