Giving Credit to Brand Credibility

Brands can be imagined as signposts that help consumers navigate through their purchase decision processes. On many occasions brands simplify and shorten the decision process; a strong brand may show the consumer the route to an easier and safer choice decision. Over the years, symbolic (e.g., self-expression, self-image), social (e.g., status, relationship) and emotional meanings of brands gained more attention and emphasis in research and practice. However, we should not let those latter influences of brands overshadow or mitigate our recognition of the essential and useful role reserved for brands in organising and directing consumer decision-making.

An insightful approach to the function of brands in decision-making draws from the theory of information economics. Consumers are commonly met with imperfect and asymmetric information about products they intend to buy, and under these terms they have to make decisions. ‘Imperfect’ implies that the information is usually partial, and may also be inaccurate; ‘asymmetric’ information in particular means that the producers or suppliers know more about the products they sell (e.g., physical attributes, costs) than the consumers who buy from them.  The brand of a product can function in such settings as a signal of the credibility of the product’s origin. The signal could thus serve as a decision aid that helps consumers make a better or more gratifying choice. Theory and research of the past twenty years suggest that the brand as a signal may have impact not only on the outcome of the choice decision (e.g., its quality) but furthermore on the whole course of the decision process (e.g., consideration, evaluation, choice).

The perspective of information economics is relatively less familiar than other theoretical viewpoints. Reference is made here primarily to cognitive-driven theories of attitudes and information processing that receive greater coverage than information economics in the context of brands. Yet, the information economics viewpoint of the brand as a signal, led by Erdem, Swait and Louviere, can be employed beneficially side-by-side with Aaker’s model of brand assets or Keller’s concept of (differential) brand knowledge. These views offer complementing aspects with respect to the role and effects of brands in decision processes. The efficacy of the brand as a signal for credibility applies especially to strong brands. Moreover, each approach describes how consumer-based brand equity is built-up or materialised through decision processes, and also proposes how to model and measure it.

A more formal definition of the brand as a signal specifies the ability of a brand to act as a credible signal (e.g., trustworthy, believable) reflecting on positioning overall of the branded products. It implies that consumers’ perceptions of the branded product on multiple aspects, primarily perceived quality, would be stronger, more believable, or more reliable. Subsequently, we need to understand what can make the brand a more credible signal. Main drivers that contribute to brand credibility include consistency of the brand owner in delivering on its claims or promises (e.g., in advertising), which would make those claims more trustworthy; consistency in the performance of actions on marketing mix elements (e.g., pricing, product capabilities); clarity of messages (e.g., to support its positioning); and the scale of investment in the brand (e.g., offline and online advertising, website and mobile app, sponsorships).

Greater brand investment directly enhances brand credibility. But consistency in execution of marketing actions seems even more important by contributing directly, and strongly, to brand credibility as well as by supporting clarity, which is likely to further add to credibility of the brand. Consequent benefits of higher credibility to consumers are likely to be support for higher perceived quality, reduced perceived risk, and lower information costs (e.g., less search and validation of information). Perceiving less risk in buying the branded product can in addition free the consumer from looking for more information, and therefore reduce in turn the information costs even lower. [1, 2]

In a multi-attribute choice model, each product alternative is assigned values on a set of attributes according to a consumer’s perceptions or beliefs about those attributes. These perceptions may be ‘coloured’ by associations that the consumer holds with the product’s brand name (some associations would ascribe to physical or functional attributes of the product {or service} whereas others may relate to an intangible image of the brand). Utility weights are added for attributes, as applicable by the decision rule — these weights may differ between brands, for any attribute that may be judged, for example, as more compatible with, important for, or even unique to a specific brand. The brand hence may impact the choice decision from consideration of which brands to include in the choice set, through perceptions about the branded products, to utilisation of the information in the decision rule applied (e.g., by alternative or by attribute). (Note: Details about  random error components of perceptions and utilities are omitted here.)[2]

A wider-angle view will account for additional phases or processes surrounding the framework of choice model described above, for instance: (1) The search for information upon which perceptions are formed or updated and the costs that may be incurred in gathering the information; (2) Learning about products by using a form of hypothesis testing to evaluate and screen information; (3) Mental processes engaged during learning and decision-making (e.g., encoding, search and retrieval from memory, preference formation). When a brand helps to organise the information, it is employed as a basis or reference for testing a hypothesis, or affects the meaning given to attribute information, it exercises, and possibly enhances, its brand equity in the minds of consumers.[2]

  • Swait, Erdem, Louviere, and Dubelaar proposed a measure (metric) of consumer-based brand equity, constructed from the perspective of information economics which regards the brand as a signal for higher quality and reputation. They called their measure the “Equalization Price”. Deriving the EP estimate for a brand is based on a comparison between two settings: (1) A hypothetical market where there is no differentiation between brand alternatives, and total utility for all alternatives is the same (for simplicity, it can be set to 0 for all brands); (2) A simulated market (choice set scenario) where brand alternatives exhibit different total utilities. Their approach is rather different from many others in its reference to a ‘hypothetical alternative’ and to the total utility of an alternative instead of a brand-specific component.
  • The Equalization Price denotes the level to which the price for a brand-product alternative can be raised until its total utility for a consumer in the simulated market (choice scenario) becomes equal to the ‘common’ utility {0} (i.e., the price at which the utilities are equivalent). Weaker brands could be assigned a negative EP. The researchers applied their brand equity estimates to analyse the potential of brands to extend from the ‘mother’ category into a ‘new’ category (e.g., Levi’s extending from jeans to athletic shoes). (Technical note: The EP estimates are derived from a probabilistic multinomial choice model based on a choice experiment — the ‘total utility’ refers to the deterministic portion of utility). [3]

Let us look next in greater resolution at differences in the chain of effects of brand credibility between stages of the decision process. The contribution of brand credibility in reducing perceived risk is more crucial in the early stage of considering which brands are eligible at all to be chosen from. Brands associated with too much risk will be eliminated in this stage of constructing the consideration set, and they will be excluded from any further operations. The savings that can be gained in information costs will also be important at this stage. In other words, “perceived risk and information costs saved play a screening role in the choice process”. On the other hand, enhancing perceived quality, in virtue of greater brand credibility, has greater impact when evaluating alternatives prior to making the choice decision. Therefore, brand credibility can increase the probability of the branded product of both being considered for buying and of being eventually chosen, but there is a difference in how the outcomes are achieved between those decision stages. [1]

It has also been found that this distinction in impact of perceived risk and perceived quality between stages will be more pronounced in product categories characterised by greater uncertainty and higher sensitivity to uncertainty. At the brand level, inconsistency in executing marketing mix elements (e.g., pricing, distribution) is likely to increase consumer uncertainty regarding the brand claims, and thereof hurts the credibility of the brand (see the effect via clarity noted earlier). Erdem and Swait discuss managerial implications of the role of brand credibility for customer relationship management (e.g., cognitive and affective impacts of credibility) and brand extensions. They also review other research in which they substantiated the contributions of specific aspects of brand credibility over choice stages and product categories (e.g., overall and distinct effects of trustworthiness by consistently delivering on brand claims and expertise in execution of elements of the marketing mix, such as technological competence in product development and design).

The Internet opens before the consumers an ocean rich with information at their fingertips on personal computers and mobile devices, in a plethora of commercial and non-commercial websites and mobile applications. So it would seem that a great part of the problems confronted by the field of information economics have been resolved for consumers. Yet, searching and gathering relevant information for a purchase decision in many product categories still takes time and requires cognitive effort, and sometimes also psychic effort or emotional stress.

Different costs may be more significant these days than were in the pre-Internet age but they cannot be discarded. For example, with so many sources of information available and easily accessible, it takes more time to review just several of them, and it is increasingly necessary to cross-check information found on various websites or apps (e.g., direct competitors, online shopping platforms, trade and professional portals). In reality, consumers normally access and review only a small portion of information available in a domain (e.g., how many and how often consumers open a window to read technical specifications).

Furthermore, even if information is less imperfect, there are still issues concerning asymmetric information because a greater part of information on products and services is controlled and provided by interested commercial businesses. In addition, biases and diversions could be luring in online information sources that consumers may not suspect, because they are not directly associated with the companies and brands originally providing the product or service of interest (e.g., search engines, online shopping platforms, social media — younger consumers increasingly stay in the confinements of “closed gardens” of social network platforms and do not explore the Internet enough).

Addressing brand equity from the perspective of information economics highlights a crucial value a brand can offer, brand credibility, with a very practical function in purchase decision-making. There is somewhat an illusion in believing that consumers are far less challenged today by constraints and costs of obtaining and using information for making choice decisions. If only for that reason, brands are promised to continue to play a vital facilitating role in the decision process. Moreover, when consumers can rely on credibility of a brand as a signal, this continues to reinforce the brand equity.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Feel Well. Keep Good Health.



[1] The Information-Economics Perspective on Brand Equity; Tülin Erdem and Joffre Swait, 2016; Foundations and Trends in Marketing, 10 (1), pp. 1-59 (DOI: 10.1561/1700000041)

[2] Brand Equity, Consumer Learning and Choice; Tülin Erdem, Joffre Swait, Susan Broniarczyk, Dipankar Chakravarti, Jean-Noël Kapferer, Michael Keane, John Roberts, Jan-Benedict E.M. Steenkamp, & Florian Zettelmeyer, 1999; Marketing Letters, 10 (3), pp. 301-318

[3] The Equalization Price: A Measure of Consumer-Perceived Brand Equity; Joffre Swait, Tülin Erdem, Jordan Louviere, & Chris Dubelaar, 1993; International Journal of Research in Marketing, 10, pp. 23-45