What Brands Need to Do to Beat the ‘Cheap’ Perception

3 min read · 6 years ago


Whether customers perceive a product as “cheap” or “affordable” is crucial to its success in the marketplace. But if companies think they lack control of this perception, well, they are simply wrong.

There is, always has been and always will be a market for consumer products with relatively low prices. Even so, customers will shy away from or denounce those products if they determine them to be “cheap.” They will embrace products if they see them as “affordable.”

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However slight, the difference between “affordable” and “cheap” is real, and although it’s seemingly an intangible, subjective problem, companies can solve it with tangible marketing tactics that put the consumer first. Companies overcome the “cheap” perception when they build a strategy that emphasizes a product’s value proposition (what you pay for what you get) or quality-to-value ratio for a clearly defined consumer target.

When presented in this context, a product not only becomes affordable but it becomes approachable to the targeted consumers. On the other hand, if companies decide to market a product as a standalone solution whose chief attribute is its low price, then it becomes cheap and it appeals to no one.

If companies think about what product attributes are most important to their consumer target, they can emphasize those attributes and more successfully link high value to high quality, thus overcoming the “cheap” perception.

This is true across many consumer sectors and speaks to customers’ natural reactions to product marketing. For example, Honda transformed its brand image in the 1970s and 1980s by focusing on building high quality cars with the right features at the right price for its core target. Today, Honda is seen not as “cheap” but as a smart purchase.

In addition, retail companies, such as Gap, have long emphasized value and quality over price in their marketing strategies. Gap’s current “Dress Normal” campaign gets it right. In a recent interview with AdAge, Gap’s Global CMO Seth Farbman appropriately summed up the company’s mindset, explaining, “What we need to reinforce is what has always been true, that even at full price, the quality and value and enduring style of Gap product is of high value. If the spots make the clothes look more expensive, great. They’re not.”

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Farbman’s sentiments echo mine, and they resemble what the marketing teams I have worked with have set out to do, both during my tenure at Timex and now at EB Brands. A product’s price does not define it. Instead, if companies clearly tell the product’s value proposition story, price will become one of many secondary features and not the product’s headlining attribute.

To be successful in becoming relevant and approachable to target consumers, the product’s overall brand story must also be a part of a thoughtful, clear and consistent brand positioning. This will attract the target consumer and push the idea of “cheap” further into irrelevance. Affordability then becomes necessary, rather than optional, and ends up as a central strength in an effective marketing strategy, especially in tandem with a properly enforced high-quality, high-value brand story.

This is true from fashion to fitness. To illustrate my point, a recent survey conducted by Technology Advice reveals that one in five adults who do not use a fitness tracker cite concern over cost as the main reason. Along those lines, a much larger 57 percent of those who do not use a fitness tracker say they would be more likely to purchase one if it helped lower their insurance premiums.

The survey reveals a customer mindset that regards cost and dollars saved as essential elements to a purchase decision, which brings us back to a product’s quality-to-value ratio for target consumers. Within this framework, there is no room for the “cheap” perception to emerge in the first place.

In the end, companies that simultaneously provide quality and value should not feel trapped by the “cheap” perception. The game plan to beat it is out there. Honda has done it. Gap has done it. Smirnoff is doing it with their “Vodka for the Masses” campaign, which touts high quality vodka for everyone. Once again, in its approach to target consumers, a company’s focus on quality and value greatly outweighs the price.

No matter the product, if companies target consumers, they have the marketing tools to maintain a firm hold on their brand story. They just may not know it yet.

Related: Show Your Work: Letting a Great Product Sell Itself

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