Shelf Awareness ; What's in a Brand Name? Quality, Sometimes. but It Pays to Determine If a Label Is Worth the Added Cost

Article excerpt

Ever since manufacturers began slapping their names on products, certain names have created consumer magic. Say "Rolls-Royce" or "Macintosh" or "Rolex" and everybody forms an image. Good brands aren't always pricey. Shopping at Target suggests good quality at a great price, brand experts say.

But names aren't always the consumer's best guide. Sometimes, they're just confusing.

For example, guess who makes the following dishwashers. Sure, some are easy: GE Profile (General Electric) and Frigidaire Gallery (Frigidaire). But how about Hotpoint, Magic Chef, KitchenAid, and Kenmore? (Answers: General Electric; Maytag; Whirlpool; General Electric; and Whirlpool. Doesn't Westinghouse make White- Westinghouse dishwashers? Nope. It's Frigidaire's low-end line.

That's the problem with brand-name shopping these days. So many products, so many claims. Everybody knows that well-recognized companies don't always deliver the best value.

But how do you find out about that hidden gem from a lesser- known company? And even if you know how, who has the time to sort it all out?

Answer: You do. Just jump on the Internet.

A few simple steps into cyberspace can give you a pretty good idea of when a brand name deserves its reputation and when it doesn't. Watch out, though. Just as the Internet can tear down a company's reputation, it's also breeding its own class of brands that don't always offer the best value.

"A brand name is sometimes a good shorthand for quality. The trouble is that brands aren't absolutely constant," says David Heim, managing editor of Consumer Reports, the monthly magazine published in Yonkers, N.Y. "Companies are bought and sold. Things change. Even brands that are more consistent than most [can] make a mistake with a particular product."

A few years ago, he recalls, Thomson Consumer Electronics came out with a flawed design for a line of its RCA TV sets. Consumer Reports readers who owned the sets complained and the brand name suffered. "It will take Thomson several years to get through all this," Mr. Heim says.

Eventually, a company with a good reputation has to fix the problem or its brand name will suffer, marketing experts say.

"If the product is really not that good and the brand is strong, in the long run, it's not going to succeed," says Deepak Sirdeshmukh, a marketing professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "There are a lot of terrible products being put out by great brand names, except we call it 'test marketing.' "

For example, in late 1992 Pepsi introduced a clear soft drink called Pepsi Crystal with great fanfare. Within a few months, it disappeared from stores. The problem wasn't the product itself so much as its fit with the Pepsi brand, Professor Sirdeshmukh says. Customers expected the new drink to taste like a Pepsi. When it didn't, they abandoned the product.

Sometimes, companies face the opposite problem: Their products rate better than their brand name.

Take running shoes. Although Nike dominates the market, other lesser-known companies - such as Etonic and Asics - have rated better in Consumer Reports.

Which bottled water would you rather drink: Perrier, Poland Spring, or Von's Natural Spring Water? In a four-year study released last year, the Natural Resources Defense Council found that the first two, well-known brand names, contained contaminants. Von's, a store brand, did not.

How about this choice in plastic garbage bags for the kitchen: American Fare (sold at Kmart) at 4 cents apiece or Glad Handle-Tie bags at 15 cents? When Consumer Reports tested both a year ago, it found the Kmart bags were not only cheaper, they were also more durable.

Clothing poses a special challenge. "The same company will produce designer couture . …