Overcoming the Power of Branding

“Having preferences means having weaknesses.” – Magnus Carlsen, currently the number one rated chess player in the world

Laundry products at Target
Thanks to Adria Richards for the picture

Over the years, Sarah and I have relied on Cascade Complete to get our dishes clean. We’d tried a lot of different dishwashing detergents, particularly when we were first living in apartments where a dishwasher was available, and we just found that Cascade Complete got our dishes cleaner. We didn’t have to re-run loads. We didn’t have to pre-wash dishes. We didn’t have to worry about overloading. It just got the job done consistently – something we couldn’t say about other dishwashing detergents.

Because of this, we just adopted a routine of buying Cascade Complete whenever we needed dishwashing detergent. We’d recognize the logo on the store shelf, find the best bargain on it we could, stack a coupon on top of that (usually), and head to the checkout.

Some time in 2010 – I think it may have been in the spring – I noticed that our dishes weren’t getting very clean. They looked sort of dingy and they often would still have caked-on food or smudges on the glasses (with little kids, smudged glasses are a very common phenomenon).

After doing a bit of studying, I learned that Cascade Complete had removed the phosphates from their dishwashing detergent, making it much less effective and putting it almost exactly on par with other phosphate-free dishwashing detergents that cost substantially less to buy.

Simply put, we haven’t used Cascade Complete in a year and a half. We either use a generic brand or a homemade mix. The brand on the bottle means little, after all – it’s what’s inside that washes your dishes.

* * *

Companies work very hard to associate brands with certain things in our minds. Apple. Nike. Sony. Olive Garden. Each of those things – and countless others – causes us to picture certain things in our minds and often causes us to have certain assumptions about the products that carry those brand names on them.

For us, Cascade Complete was synonymous with “clean dishes,” but that eventually proved not to be the case. Not because they changed the brand, but because they changed what was inside the box.

The label on the outside of the box doesn’t mean you’re going to always get the same thing inside the box.

What does that mean for us? Don’t become attached to brands. The particular item that is on top of the heap right now might not necessarily be on top of the heap next year if a particular item changes its contents or a competitor produces a better product.

The product you once started buying because it was the best bang for the buck quite likely isn’t the best bang for the buck any more.

I can easily recall a similar experience with a Sony Walkman during my childhood. When I was about eight, I had a secondhand one that was industrial strength. I used it for about six years until it was dropped into a lake. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone were to dive into that lake and find a fully-functioning Sony Walkman.

I bought a replacement, expecting a similar durable product. It worked for about three months, then it started eating and shredding tapes. I attempted to turn it in under the warranty and just wound up battling Sony’s customer service until it wasn’t worth it any more.

The Sony name and the Walkman name meant very little. The product inside is what mattered.

* * *

My solution to all of this is to just completely abandon any meaning when it comes to brand names. All they’re useful for is making it easy to identify a certain item on the store shelf.

What I do instead is constantly watch for product reviews. I read publications like Consumer Reports and The Consumerist pretty faithfully and I simply watch for what their comparative studies suggest is the current best “bang for the buck.” I stick with that for a while until an updated comparison comes out.

When I’m about to buy a more expensive product, I research it thoroughly, but the brand name doesn’t mean a whole lot. If it’s an electronic item, for instance, it’s likely that it was made out of many of the same components in the same Chinese factory no matter what name is on the box. If it’s a dishwashing detergent, the vast majority of the materials in the box are exactly the same. The small differences between the items have little to do with the name on the outside of the box.

All I care about are features and price. Those things matter far more than the name on the package.

I’m striving to apply the same philosophy to everything I see. Does it matter what car someone else bought? Not really. They just decided that it had the right set of features for them. I might not value those same features, but then again, I’m not the person spending the money. If I see someone driving a Jaguar, for example, all I can really conclude is that they have a different set of features that they care about in a car than I do.

I’m not defined by the brands that I buy, nor is anyone else. They’re just stickers on the outside of an item that will ideally make my life a bit easier or more enjoyable. Nothing more, nothing less.

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  1. Vicky says:

    Do you have a recommendation for dish detergent? I have the same problem with mine – phosphate free soap… while better for the environment, does NOT do a good job cleaning dishes.

    I usually wash by hand, but I’ve injured one of my arms – and I have a dish washer, and I’d … love to use it, but… I can’t ever get anything clean out of it!

  2. Tom says:

    Consumer Reports found no performance differences between all the dishwasher soaps they tested, specifically due to removal of phosphates. They recommended buying the cheapest one you can get (I believe the Costco store brand had the lowest cost in their test).

  3. Derek says:

    Some industrial-strength dishwasher detergents (including Cascade) still have the phosphates and you can order them online.

  4. Gretchen says:

    Someone suggested to once just adding a pinch of TSP to the detergent on occasion.

    This, of course, negates the environmental benefits of the new anti-phosphate detergents, though. Use the info as you wish.

  5. Andrew says:

    If all you care about are features and price, then you’re missing out on reliability and overall quality.

    The rest of the article, and many other previous posts, do talk about quality and endurance–why leave them out of the boldface print, particularly since those are the only words a casual viewer might notice?

  6. Johanna says:

    “If I see someone driving a Jaguar, for example, all I can really conclude is that they have a different set of features that they care about in a car than I do.”

    You mean you can’t conclude that he’s in debt up to his eyeballs despite working 80-hour weeks and must therefore live a deeply stressful and unhappy life? Huh.

  7. Andrew says:

    Sensory values are also important: feel, taste, smell, and especially appearance. An item may make perfect economic sense in the abstract, but if falls to please the senses it is not worth much at all.

  8. Adam says:

    @Gretchen… I believe that TSP no longer actually contains the P, but it is still called TSP.

    I know this isn’t a post about dishwasher detergent, but oddly enough, we just started using cascade complete because it works so much better than the cheap stuff we were using (Up & Up brand).

    I’d love to make my own though if it would save us money, Cascade Complete isn’t cheap.

  9. lurker carl says:

    “Having preferences means having weaknesses.” – Magnus Carlsen, currently the number one rated chess player in the world

    The little voice in my head tells me this quote has absolutely nothing to do with Cascade, Jaguar or Le Creuset and everything to do with competitive chess tournaments. That is quite a stretch!

  10. Michelle says:

    @Johanna – I had the same thought!

  11. Jackowick says:

    As per usual, people getting too emotionally involved or perceiving judgements about their own decisions while reading and advice column.

    The point is that brand loyalty can be blinding at times, not whether Consumer Reports agrees or disagrees, or whether a Jaguar is a good car. Sheesh.

  12. Vanessa says:

    Did you not try generics when you were first testing detergents?
    Just wondering why if generic works well enough now, why you were using Cascade to begin with.

  13. Good advice. We usually buy generic too, but I do stick to some brands like Colgate and Nike. Well, Nike’s HQ is here so I’m a bit bias.

  14. Jill says:

    Sometimes brand names do still make a difference. I’ve had sensitive skin issues since childhood, and the only laundry detergent that doesn’t make me break out in a rash, no matter how many times I run the rinse cycle, is Tide.

  15. Mary says:

    @Jill, #14 – Funny, I am allergic to Tide! I have to use Era. Dang eczema.

    I am open to trying different brands but if I’ve been burned long enough by generic or other popular brands, I’m going to stick with what works, no matter the price. Just priorities I guess.

  16. Maria says:

    This is off the dish detergent topic, but I found the same problem with paper towels. For a long time I bought Sparkle Towels. They weren’t as expensive as Bounty, and they did a great job. Well they must have changed the paper quality or something, but the last time I bought an 8 pack, they were terrible. You couldn’t get them wet, they would make little balls of paper that would stick to everything, just a mess. So I had to try some other brands and found that the Bounty Basic work just fine and are still reasonably priced. Sparkle lost a good customer, we go through way too many rolls of paper towels in our house

  17. Angie says:

    One of my weaknesses are paper towels. I know you should use dish towels, or rags, etc., but with two small children and two small dogs… well, it’s just so much more convenient. I use the Costco Kirkland brand.

  18. Troy says:

    You say “Don’t become attached to brands.” and they mean little.

    Then you say you “read publications like Consumer Reports and The Consumerist pretty faithfully.”

    Those publications are brands. Why are you loyal to them, but not to the brands they report on?

  19. elyn says:

    To answer Vicky’s question about a recommendation for a good dish detergent…
    I tried a ton of different brands of phosphate free, eco-friendly dish detergents. There’s only one of them that I like, because it doesn’t leave the dishes all covered in residue- it actually makes them all shiny and clean: Ecover Automatic Dishwasher Tablets. I have no idea if they are expensive or not- they are worth whatever they cost because they do exactly what I want while being eco-friendly, and nothing else did. I get them by the case online.

    As to brand-loyalty- if I do a lot of footwork, as in the dish detergent sample from above, and I land on a brand I like then I will very likely never stray from that brand. This is because it took work to find it, and I am not someone who enjoys trying out tons of different detergents just to save a few pennies. On the other hand, I’m all about generic when it comes to things like medicines, most hygiene products, and lots of groceries.

  20. Jenny says:

    I will often buy both and do a (not very scientific) blind taste test (assuming it’s a food item, we don’t taste test dishwasher detergent). Some things make a big difference, and others not so much. Peanut butter makes a huge difference so we only buy our favorite brand. Canned tomatoes is a small difference, so we will buy the name brand only when on sale and close to the generic price. Pudding cups we notice no difference so we always buy the cheapest. And with waffles I actually prefer the generic, so I buy those.

  21. Telephus44 says:

    I just wanted to second @19 elyn’s comment. I’ve been through a lot of different dish washing detergents, and the absolute best is Ecover. It is more expensive, but to me the lower impact on the environment is worth the cost. The second best solution (since Ecover is hard to find, I order mine online) is a product called LemiShine – it’s a power additive you can mix with any dish washing detergent and works pretty well.

  22. pollyanna says:

    @#14 and @#15 i have exema also tide is ok but the oly thing my son can use is all free and clear i have broken the brand relaince by making my own laundry detergent. I just make sure the soap i use is one that my son and I can both use.

  23. deRuiter says:

    This is why the Madison Advertising people are desperate to attract the 17-49 demographic. As a lot (but not all) of people get older, they are less likely to be easily swayed by advertising due to their past life experiences. Advertising is mostly lies, dressed up in the most attractive package which the advertising department can invent. This is true of a lot of so called “green” products too, because ad people know that attaching the word “green” to any product will sell more of it to the gullible. Advertising is intended to sell things they don’t need to people who can’t afford them and who would be better served by buying something different or not buying at all.

  24. lurker carl says:

    Quoting the January 2012 Consumer Reports magazine on page 46 in the “Hold the phosphates – and the complains” inset, “Cascade Complete All In 1 ActionPacs, 29 cents per load, cleaned very well and didn’t leave a white film on dishes or discolor aluminum.”

    Trent and family are loading the dishwasher incorrectly, the incoming water isn’t hot enough and/or the dishwasher needs servicing.

  25. kimberly says:

    We tried two store brands, Tom Thumb aka Safeway and Up And Up by Target. The best by far was Tom Thumbs. The Up and Up was the worst I have ever used. Tom Thumb brand is priced at the same price point as if I go to Target and get Cascade.

    I also love E Cover (dang auto correct) .

  26. Izabelle says:

    Here is a little inside trick: on a retail shelf, look at the attributes and package shape of the store’s house brand, then locate the brand name one the same shelf that resembles it most. You have now identified the manufacturer of the house brand.

    If you like the corresponding name brand product, buying the house brand will get you the same thing but slightly cheaper. The money will go to the same pockets. Win-win.

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