What are we like, eh?
Now, just to be clear: I’m in no way suggesting people are somehow wrong or misguided for paying £45 for Crocs. And I’m not enthusiastically condoning the thriving bootleg industry. In fact, I’ll level with you: I have, in the past, purchased high-end fakes of otherwise unobtainable sneakers. It was easy, and the fakes were indistinguishable from originals. But – like the 103 million people who purchased real-deal Crocs in 2021 – given a straightforward A-or-B choice, I will always buy officially manufactured products.
But, like… Why?
In order to get to the truth, let’s make some assumptions. Let’s assume that most Crocs-buyers aren’t paying £45 because they want to support Crocs financially, in the same way they might want to support a local artisanal craftsperson. Crocs is a global business that enjoyed revenues of $2.3 billion in 2021 – it’s doing just fine.
Let’s also discount the idea that people are paying £45 for markedly superior quality. This may or may not be true for fake Crocs, but a great many bootleg products are manufactured in Chinese factories during what’s known as the ‘third shift’ – using the same machinery and the same materials as are used to create the original products. They’re identical, but unauthorised. And as for ‘legal’ copycat Crocs – of the kind offered by Primark et al – those are every bit as durable as their £45 equivalents. (Source: my daughter’s Asda Croc-a-likes, still going strong 15 months on.)
Finally, let’s disregard ease-of-purchasing as the reason people opt for Crocs over knock-offs. Type ‘Crocs’ into Google Shopping and you’ll be served links not only to official Crocs, but also to low-cost copycats from retailers such as Shein and Matalan. Cheaper alternative options are right there. They’re everywhere, in fact.
So, again, why?
(I am now finally getting to the point of all this, by the way. God bless you for your patience.)
Stating the obvious somewhat here, but the reason people will pay £45 for Crocs is down to the company’s marketing. All those ads in glossy fashion mags and #spon posts from influencers. All those collabs with hyper-cool brands such as Balenciaga, Palace and Awake NY. All those co-signs from pop-culture influencers such as Takashi Murakami, Bad Bunny and Nicki Minaj.
People pay £45 for foam clogs in order to forge a connection between themselves and all that intoxicating marketing – between their lives and Balenciaga, and Takashi Murakami, and that sun-kissed model on page 67 of Vogue. Those fake £11 Crocs from DHGate? They may be identical to the real thing physically, but they don’t provide that sense of connection emotionally.
In his mind-bending book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari describes how Peugeot is no more than an abstract idea held together by branding and marketing:
“In what way can we say that Peugeot exists? There are many Peugeot vehicles, but these are obviously not the company. Even if every Peugeot in the world were simultaneously junked and sold for scrap metal, Peugeot would not disappear... Peugeot has managers and shareholders, but neither do they constitute the company. All the managers could be dismissed and all its shares sold, but the company itself would remain intact… In short, Peugeot seems to have no essential connection to the physical world. Does it really exist? Peugeot is a figment of our collective imagination.”
That Peugeot is a “figment of our collective imagination” doesn’t make it worthless or meaningless. After all, money is also a figment of our collective imagination, but one that’s proved reasonably popular for quite a while now.
These figments of imagination – formed by branding and marketing, then kept alive in all our minds – can be enormously powerful in very real ways. Physiological ways, even.
A cool, shiny box goes a long way
Nurofen. As you’re probably aware, a 16-pack of Nurofen (price: £1.90) contains the exact same active ingredients as a pack of supermarket own-brand ibuprofen tablets (price: £39p). In a 2015 study, researchers gave placebo pills to people who frequently suffered headaches. Some placebos were packaged generically, others were packaged as Nurofen and other high-profile brands. The majority of study participants reported that the branded dummy pills worked far more effectively than the unbranded dummy pills. All those TV ads featuring see-through people suffering from throbbing red circles had done their job, and alarmingly well.
Marketing and branding, then, are incredibly good at creating differentiation between products that, really, deep down, are basically identical – be they foam clogs or pain pills. In B2B, this manufactured sense of differentiation is invaluable for companies offering products or services that are essentially the same as those offered by their competitors: electricity, for example, or 30mm steel screws.
Through storytelling and insightful messaging, marketers can make your 30mm steel screws feel like the equivalent of £45 real-deal Crocs. By comparison, your competitors’ screws will start to look like cheap Primark knock-offs. Your screws will seem desirable, superior, irresistible. Studies show that consumers purchase specific products for emotional reasons, and then rationalise their choices afterwards. Making people feel like they’re choosing the right screw is more important than making them think they’re choosing the right screw.
So is marketing essentially just a dirty, underhanded trick that us humans – buffered by subconscious desires that we barely understand – are pitiably powerless against? Nah. Marketing has its limitations, and it definitely can’t polish a turd. If Crocs were painfully uncomfy or prone to falling apart, all the Nicki Minaj co-signs in the world wouldn’t help shift 103 million pairs a year. And look at Nurofen. Is it overpriced? Arguably, yes. But does it make headaches go away? It totally does.
Saying that… All those people in the study did believe that placebo pills in Nurofen packaging were effective painkillers, so maybe marketing really can do anything. Let’s test it out. Got a warehouse full of defective B2B tat that you need shifting, sharpish? Get in touch. We’ll reach out to Minaj. Let’s get that ropey crap sold!