The Importance of Branding and Labeling

Consumer Behavior – Branding

The Importance of Branding, Labeling, and Peer Pressure to Teenage and Other Consumers

Consumer purchases are made to satisfy a need: physical or psychological; business-related or for pleasure; imaginary or real. While no consumer’s purchasing needs or desires, or purchasing attitudes, priorities, or behaviors will ever likely be identical to those of any other consumer, it is nevertheless true that particular consumers will tend to behave (and spend) similarly, based on demographic factors such as gender; household income; occupation; hobbies and interests; age group; image consciousness; susceptibility to peer pressure, etc. (Kanner & Kasser, October, 2003; Toynee, 2004; Grimaldi, 2005). Moreover, it is a sad fact of contemporary American life that so many of today’s consumers, of every age, increasingly believe that who they are has so much to do with what they buy, own, and display to others. This, in a nutshell, is the underlying reason that branding and labeling of consumer products is both so successful and successful so often. All of this, however, is actually a direct effect of consumer marketing, especially of such marketing targeted explicitly to those consumers most susceptible to its psychological effects and inflated promises: young people and teenagers.

Increasingly, moreover, textbooks; websites; classes; seminars; conferences; keynote speeches; panel discussions; symposiums; and magazine and trade journal articles devote themselves to detailed analysis of how to best encourage (or, more accurately, manipulate) consumers to buy (and buy more of) particular mass-marketed products. Also increasingly, many such endeavors are devoted to better understanding, manipulating, and exploiting buying preferences, pressures, and habits of teens in particular.

Weeks (October 28, 2004), reports for example, that:

At the second annual “WHAT TEENS WANT: Marketing to Teens Using

Music, Movies and the Media,” a two-day event held this week in Beverly

Hills, California on Tuesday, the hotel was filled with keynotes and dialogues with top executives, direct feedback from teenagers and panels, all tackling critical niche marketing issues. Hosted by AdWeek, BrandWeek, MediaWeek,

Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter, the event attracted media and marketing executives hungry to understand the dynamic generation of current teens who last year spent over $170 billion.

Within such settings, one fact that emerges again and again is that the labeling or branding of products has been proven to be especially effective with consumers of all ages, but teen purchasers in particular. Product branding has also been proven to be much more effective at continually influencing teen buying decisions than it has been at continually influencing buying decisions of older consumer groups (Linn, May 2004; Kestering, June 2004; Grimaldi, 2005).

Most likely, that is because teenagers in particular are in general far more susceptible than older consumers to the psychological and emotional effects of branding or labeling of products or services (e.g. designer clothes; cosmetics brands; cars; computers; music; food and drinks; appliances; Internet server subscriptions, etc., etc.) (Linn; Kestering). Teenagers as a group are also, in general, far more interested than are other age groups in both fitting in with and impressing members of their peer group. For those reasons, then, advertising has worked hard to successfully link prospective teenage success in those areas, as well as the idea of teenage “popularity” with peers, to (supposedly, at least) possession of the “right” brands of designer clothes and accessories; appliances; music products; foods and beverages; automobiles and automobile accessories; shoes; handbags and luggage; watches, jewelry, backpacks; computer equipment; video games and software; backpacks; book bags; cosmetics; sporting equipment, etc.

In fact, as Kanner & Kasser (October 2003) also note, branding and purchasing, and consuming “brand name” products, is so important to teens today that this affects virtually everything they think; say, and do: to the way they look and dress, to whom they associate with (or not); to how and where they socialize; to how they interface with, and view, the rest of the world around them. As Kanner & Kasser further suggest “It’s the meta-message that you can solve all of life’s problems by purchasing the right products that’s having the most profound effect” (p. iii). And Kestering further notes that: “By the time children reach their teens, a developmental stage when they’re naturally insecure and searching for a personal identity, they’ve been taught that material possessions are what matter.”

Peer influence plays a very influential role, as well, in influencing teenage purchasing choices, and therefore helps determine product marketing effectiveness (or the lack thereof) of particular labeling or branding of products. More than any other age group, teens are motivated, affected and influenced by what their peer group thinks or might think (Kanner & Kasser, October 2003). Such peer and marketing influences combined, very often lead teenagers to buy (often very expensive) designer clothes and other popular or trendy items in hope of fitting in well with their peer group; attracting admirers and people to date; and impressing (and/or generating product-envy among) their friends and other peers.

Ironically, teens, an age group well-known for its characteristic rebellion against convention and authority, and for being bent on expressing their (preferably offbeat) individuality, are in truth very “conformist” in this way. Product marketers, for their part, are extremely quick (and eager) to exploit this unique, usually very trying and difficult phase of human development for profit. And many companies have done so with enormous success, branding, labeling, and otherwise promoting their consumer wares in ways that (falsely) implicitly promise to make their owners magically, instantaneously “cool”; accepted; sought after; envied; sexy; good looking; popular, etc., when wearing, listening to, driving, programming, eating, drinking, or otherwise using them.

To that effect, then, branding or labeling is not simply putting a name on something; it is also (much more importantly) a way of creating an image of, and emotional connection to, that product. Moreover, that manufactured image, and its accompanying (cleverly manipulated) emotional significance, often take on lives of their own over and above any real-world use or purpose of the product itself (Toynee, 2004; Grimaldi; 2005).

After that, a given product is no longer merely, say, just a cell phone; a car, or a pair of jeans. Instead it is a Nokia (or some other brand of) cell phone; a Mercedes Benz; or a pair of Guess jeans, thus also suggesting a presence of special, admirable qualities, tastes, financial capabilities, etc., among their owners. To illustrate such consumerism in operation, one need only observe the number of expensive-model BMW and Mercedes Benz brand cars in “doctors only” areas of most hospital parking lots. Certainly, doctors as a group could get around equally well in other, less expensive, kinds of cars. But these makes and models in particular shout to others on the road that the driver inside is “successful”; “professional”; or someone who “earns a lot.”

Ownership of these and other brand-name products also supposedly connotes good or admirable consumer tastes, priorities, values, lifestyle characteristics, etc., “typical” of those who own such brands (Linn, 2004). Further, according to Grimaldi:

Branding is the foundation of marketing and is inseparable from business strategy. It is therefore more than putting a label on a fancy product.

Nowadays, a corporation, law firm, country, university, museum, hospital, celebrity, and even you in your career can be considered as a brand… A combination of attributes, communicated through a name, or a symbol, that influences a thought-process in the mind of an audience and creates value.

As branding is deeply anchored in psycho-sociology, it takes into account both tangible and intangible attributes, e.g., functional and emotional benefits. Therefore, those attributes compose the beliefs that the brand’s audience recalls when they think about the brand in its context [emphasis original].

Labeling or branding of a product, however, is only as good or reliable as the product itself. As Toynee (2004) points out: “Consumer recognition and confidence in a label have been shown to be key [emphasis original].” According to Linn (2004), businesses in the U.S. target adolescents and children in particular, in terms of their everyday marketing strategies, with an annual budget exceeding $15 billion, up two and a half times from what was spent for such purposes in 1992, influencing more $600 billion in spending by (and/or for) those age groups. This is because of the known psychological susceptibility of these age groups to brand name marketing.

Advertisers will often also cannibalize real-world creative aspects of popular culture, in order to further push their consumer products to teens. Well-known examples include the use of hip-hop images and sounds within Sprite commercials, and brand labeling of “Extreme” skateboarding and related sporting equipment products. In terms of music advertising, specifically, to teens today: “There’s never been more attention paid to a specific generation… This generation has a voracious appetite, and the record companies are happy to satiate it. Kids are being bombarded with more and more types of media designed for their demographic, with some marketing plans targeting 5-year-olds [sic] ” (Marketing to teens, September 22, 2000).

Milk advertisers have also found successful ways of marketing to today’s teens, with their “milk mustache” campaign in particular. As Farrell (June 14, 2000) states: “The idea is to make milk the “cool” drink. The “mustache” still runs, with current stars such as Britney Spears.” The success of such milk advertising to teens, it seems, represents an especially skillful endeavor, since milk is otherwise so much (and traditionally) associated with babyhood and early childhood, life stages (and self-images and reflections by others) that teens in particular generally yearn to leave far behind. Moreover, the considerable success of the “milk mustache” campaign proves very well the fact that just about anything can be successfully marketed to teens, as long as it is marketed to them with enough imagination, research, and skill (and with plenty of advertising dollars).

Some advertising for teens is also currently undergoing some interesting media changes, internationally. Within one global mega-conglomerate, Coca Cola, according to Foust (March 1, 2004):

Coke has diverted money into new initiatives that allow it to embed itself into the favorite activities of its target audience, everything from sports to music to the Internet. In Spain, Coke launched a Web site where the large share of twentysomethings who still live at home can design their own “virtual apartment,” Sim-City-style. In Britain, the soda giant created a Web site,, that lets surfers mix their own tracks — and then submit them for a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” review by peers. (Business week online)

But the Coca Cola Company has also been equally hard at work at home lately, developing and energetically trying out on suburban American teens new advertising media and messages (U.S. equivalents of Coke’s new marketing practices piloted in Europe). The idea behind these, as with the European ones, is that Coke is not just a product; a “lifestyle” (or at least a new way of ‘hanging out’ with other coke-sipping friends) also now comes along with the product. Specifically, Coke has created a whole “cool” [to teens, at least] experience intended to be integrally and automatically associated with “cool” Coca Cola.

To accomplish that, Coca Cola has begun using a combination of upscale mall locations; trendy, expensive decor; and popular music, that is, “Coke Lounges” strategically placed inside popular teen shopping spots. The overriding idea seems to be that the consumer pleasures of Coke need not be limited anymore to the mere physical consumption of it. As Foust (March 1, 2004) further explains:

When the marketers at Coca-Cola Co…. wanted to reach out to teens like Lauren Salapatek, a 17-year-old high school junior in suburban Chicago, the soda giant lured her to the Coke Red Lounge, a gathering area for mall rats built in a shopping center in the northern ‘burbs. The lounge… offers exclusive music, movies, and videos piped in… [It] has quickly become a gathering spot for Salapatek and her friends. “It’s cool, it’s comfortable, it’s in the middle of the mall,” she nods approvingly as Linkin Park’s Faint blares from the hooded speakers. (Business week online)

This is arguably the most insidious, yet also very likely the most deeply persuasive, type of advertising directed at teens (or at anyone). Through companies’ using these cleverly ingratiating marketing techniques, products become associated, through “lifestyle experiences” with a now-desired mood, feeling, or lifestyle, always far beyond (and scarcely related to, if even that) what the product itself ever actually delivers.

Another recent teen marketing trendsetter in the United States is the Toyota Motor Company, with its, economically priced, custom accessory-laden Scion automobile line. Toyota’s Scion division currently builds three models of unusually-shaped, offbeat-looking, relatively low-priced autos researched and marketed to appeal to teens. Besides the cars themselves, Scion also holds various themed “events” around the country, where young Scion owners can meet, mingle, and show off their custom paint jobs and optional Scion car accessories (e.g., polka-dotted floor mats and gear shift decorations; neon-colored cup holders, and various other effects, gadgets, and decorations, to their fellow Scion drivers and aficionados.

Toyota’s teen-targeted Scion website homepage also features links to “Culture” (which then offers sub-links to “Events”; “Music”; “Scionware” (customized extra car accessories),” an installation art auction, and “Scion Chat.” Also, from Scion’s homepage, prospective consumers of this (supposedly, at least) hippest object on four wheels, may, should they choose, “Play the Scion Shuffle”; “Unleash Your Inner Flash Artist”; “make a music video,” and “Show off your design skills and Scion love” (,October 15, 2005). Clearly, what is being advertised is (or so it appears, at least) very much more than just a relatively fuel-efficient economy car. Implicitly, then, to own and drive a Scion is to have joined a cyberspace-inspired “club” consisting of other drivers as hip as oneself. Such masterfully brilliant advertising and marketing, on corporate Toyota/Scion’s part, has managed so far to very successfully “sell” the combination of being young; short of cash, and a Scion driver, as an extremely attractive teenage place to “be.” Again, what is being convincingly sold to teen consumers, in much the same way as at Coca Cola’s “Coke Red Lounge” in suburban Illinois, is not so much a tangible product as an implied, associated, accompanying image or lifestyle (or, more accurately, the false promise of one).

Consumer marketing, of course, by its very nature is designed to be, and indeed must be, profit oriented in order for companies to survive. What is harmful about ways many products are marketed is that so many advertisers of all products, for all age groups, associate their products with an image or lifestyle beyond what the product actually does or delivers. However, older consumers usually know from experience to be skeptical of such tactics, while teenagers do not. Most unfortunate is that, with the teen years being so difficult anyway, teens motivated by advertising and peer pressure to buy certain items can sometimes sincerely hope or even expect that ownership will transform them. In the future, perhaps what might be useful and beneficial to teens (and all consumers) would be wider, more frequent, better known availability of books; websites; seminars; classes; articles, etc., like those so ubiquitously available to advertisers, for wary (and/or inexperienced) consumers themselves. While it is unlikely that such resources would make us any less susceptible to either peer pressure or to deceptive or manipulative advertising, they might at least better enable consumers, particular the youngest, to better recognize, understand, and critically evaluate what advertisers are really up to.


Farrell, G. (June 14, 2000). Milk does a body good, but ads do the industry even better. USA today. Money Section. 7b. Retrieved October 14, 2005, from


Foust, D. (March 1, 2004). Coke: Wooing the TiVo generation. Business week online. Retrieved October 15, 2004, at / magazine/content/04_09/b3872088.htm.

Grimaldi, V. (2005).What is branding? Retrieved October

14, 2005,from:

Gunderson, E. (September 22, 2000). Marketing to teens. USA today. Life Section. 1-2E. Retrieved October 14, 2005, from: college / business/casestudies/20010831-biz01.pdf.

Kanner, A., & Kasser, T. (Eds.).(October 2003). Psychology and consumer culture: The struggle for a good life in a material-istic [sic] world. New York:

American Psychological Association (APA). Iii.

Kersting, K. (June 2004). Driving teen egos — and buying — through ‘branding’.

Monitor on psychology 35(6). Retrieved October 14, 2005, from:

Linn, S. (May 2004). Consuming kids. Boston: The New Press.

Toynee, P. (2004). A key component of marketing green lead batteries. Green lead workshop [April 28 to April 30, 2004, London].Retrieved October 14, 2005, from:

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