Focus on CES: The Science Behind How to Brand Products

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It’s that time of year again: tech companies have set up shop at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) to spotlight their new devices. CES is incredibly popular—more than 175,000 people attended in 2015. 

Hot products such as drones and virtual reality devices are getting major exposure at CES, so there’s no arguing the show is a powerful springboard for breakthrough products. Some companies spend vast amounts on branding initiatives for devices launched at the show, only to see them quickly fail or never make it to market. This raises the question: does branding really matter when it comes to whether a new product succeeds? 

Consider Tesla’s entry-level car, the Model S. If we define branding as a constellation of feelings associated with a product, Tesla gets an A+ for its efforts. All of the core ideas associated with branding—a clear, consistent message; energy and attitude; a visible, passionate ambassador—are present. In turn, the company has been incredibly successful in its relatively brief existence. However, it’s more common to hear words like “mission” and “purpose” when Tesla is mentioned, terms not commonly associated with a brand.  Tesla seems to have the ability to appeal to people who care about its branding as a premium or green tech company as well as those who aren’t concerned about the brand but feel its cars have great utility. 

Consumers have either a fixed or growth mindset. Consumers with a fixed mindset seek to reinforce their own positive self-image (e.g., people who consider themselves environmentalists buy green products) while those with a growth mindset don’t care about the brand as much as finding products that will help them learn new things or improve themselves. This simple framing device is useful to consider at the beginning of the product development phase, as mindset helps to answer the most basic question about a product: who is it for?   

One study found that women with a fixed mindset perceived themselves to be better looking and more glamorous when using a Victoria's Secret shopping bag versus a plain bag. In another study by the same research team, students with a fixed mindset rated themselves as more intelligent and hardworking after using an MIT-branded pen versus an unbranded pen. The underlying idea is that people with a fixed mindset use brands to reflect who they are. On the other hand, people identified as having a growth mindset are more keyed into the idea of “process”—they see themselves as incomplete and capable of change. In short, a person with a growth mindset is more interested in how a product will improve his or her life. 

Mindsets are increasingly being seen as an important way to understand behavior. They influence what products people are drawn to and which messages they find the most persuasive. Returning to the example of the Model S, it may be that Tesla is so successful because its cars appeal to both mindsets. That is, the car is a luxury product, thus reinforcing the validation needs of the fixed mindset, but it also has a very strong appeal for those with a growth mindset—that’s where concepts of sustainability, innovation, and “mission” come into play. 

Whether you’re a well-established business, a startup in search of funding, or an entrepreneur looking to popularize a website, knowing the mindset of your audience can help shape what product you develop and how it finds its way to the world. Moreover, this knowledge gives designers, engineers, and marketers a shared way to strategize, and can help determine how much funding should be devoted to branding.

With a clear vision and an understanding of your target audience (and a little bit of luck), even the most outlandish product has a chance to succeed.

Sean Young PhD

UCLA Center for Digital Behavior, Medical Plaza, Los Angeles, CA, 90024, United States

Sean Young, PhD, MS is the Executive Director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior. I'm a scientist, innovator, and UCLA medical school professor. I study the science behind human digital behavior (see digitalbehavior.ucla.edu for more info about this field of research).I also assemble technology teams and solutions to improve UCLA Family Medicine patient care. For more info or to contact me: www.SeanYoungPhD.com