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