Changing Brand Perceptions Through Product Trial

Jonah BergerApril 29, 20224 min

Freemium and reducing up-front costs both work if someone is interested in trying something out. But what if people don’t even know you exist? Or they know you exist but don’t think they’d like what you have to offer?

In 2007, car maker Acura had a problem. It wasn’t the product. The cars themselves were pretty good. The MDX had won Motor Trend’s sport utility vehicle of the year, and the TSX and RSX had been named to Car and Driver magazine’s ten best list multiple times.

The issue was consumer perception. Acura made high-quality cars that lasted a long time, but consumers just weren’t considering the brand. Acura had been in the United States years before Lexus, but even decades later Lexus had a larger market share. When people thought about buying a Japanese luxury car, Lexus was the brand that came to mind. Acura just wasn’t in the consideration set.

Acura thought they could win if they could just get people to try the car. Existing customers loved the brand. They raved about the engine, and when their old car died, they came back in to buy a new one. There just weren’t enough of those people. It was like Acura was an amazing restaurant whose tables sat half-empty because no one knew about it.

Acura was already offering test drives, but this wasn’t enough. Test drives helped get interested customers to try the car, but it wasn’t solving the awareness and perception problems. Who takes a test drive? Only people who already know the brand and think they might like it. If people didn’t think about Acura or didn’t think they’d like driving one, they weren’t going to stop by the dealership for a test drive.

When faced with a challenge like this, companies often resort to a standard approach: advertising.

Take Buick. They saw themselves as a premium brand, but the public disagreed. They saw Buick as a boring car that their grandparents drove. So Buick did what many large companies do when they’re stuck: they bought a Super Bowl ad.

Buick spent millions on traditional push messaging in an effort to change consumers’ minds. It ran campaigns showing graying grandmas saying “Sure doesn’t look like a Buick,” and they paid Shaquille O’Neal and other celebrities to appear in ads saying how great Buick was.

This failed so miserably that a couple of years later Buick took its brand name off its cars entirely. It decided the only way it could sell Buicks was if consumers weren’t reminded that Buick was the brand they were buying.

Acura knew traditional advertising wouldn’t solve their problem. Not only was it expensive, but it wouldn’t remove the key barrier. Getting people to try Acura. So, instead of trying to persuade, they brought the car to the people.

Acura partnered with high-end W Hotels to offer an exclusive livery service. Pitched as an extension of the W’s Whatever/Whenever concierge service, anyone staying at any W Hotel could get a ride anywhere in town in an Acura MDX. All guests had to do was book the service and they would be chauffeured across town for free.

You might not have liked Acura. You might have thought it was boring or overpriced, or not even realized the brand existed. But if you were staying at the W and needed a ride somewhere, why not take advantage of the free ride? And along the way, you would learn that the brand was much nicer than you thought. Which is exactly what over a million people did.

Did all the people who tried the Acura experience buy an Acura? No, of course not. But tens of thousands did. And around 80 percent of them switched from other luxury brands.

Which do you think had greater return on investment? Spending millions trying to convince people that Buick was better than they thought? Or lending the local W Hotel a few cars and giving guests a chance to see how good Acura really is?

The Acura experience changed minds by driving discovery.

Because if people don’t know something exists, or don’t think they’ll like it, they’re unlikely to go looking to try it. Acura could have done test drives at W Hotels, but that wouldn’t have solved the problem. People who didn’t think they’d like an Acura still wouldn’t have taken one.

Instead, the company took the “try” out of trial. They delivered the experience a different way, one that didn’t demand anything of their potential customers. And in so doing, encouraged a broader set of people to consider the brand.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Jonah Berger. Excerpted from his book: The Catalyst: How To Change Anyone’s Mind

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