Categorical Perception of Brands

Categorical Perception of brands. Image of a city, built on infrastructure, built on mountains, built on dirt.

A brand is built on top of its industry’s brand, and its product category’s brand.

Executive Summary | Abstract | TL;DR
The perception of your product is affected by the preconceptions of its sub brand, company, category, and industry. This can be positive or negative. The preconceptions need to be understood to effectively market a product. Mirrorless Cameras are a case study in how category preconceptions can hold down sales of a superior technology. Strategies to navigate categorical perception are covered in another article.

Diagram comparing the layering of brands to the layering of cities. Product brand on sub brand on company brand on category brand on industry brand.It is hard enough to manage your company and your product’s brand, and that is, at least somewhat, in your control. But those brands are subject to the perceptions of their product category and industry.

A product or service and the company that provides are judged with preconceived notions based on the industry it is in.

Intuitive examples.
Most of us will understand this intuitively. Imagine yourself walking into a used car dealership; I bet you feel some tension based on the high-pressure sales tactics you expect, and you may even feel distrustful perceiving the sales people as liars and opportunists.

This effect goes both ways, positive and negative. If you think of a spa, you might already feel relaxed.

It can also get more specific and less touchy-feely. When a car enthusiast thinks of Italian sports cars, he thinks beautiful, fast, unreliable, and gas-guzzler. The latter three of those are product qualities that the customer has pre-assigned to the product.

Categorical perception is human nature.
Humans naturally categorize; it is helpful for both our neurology and perception. Your brain makes categories to save encoding space and make remembering faster. To store each species of bird and whether or not they fly would take a lot of neural storage space, and it would be cumbersome to run through a list of birds and their traits everytime I wanted to remember or perceive a bird. It is much easier to make the assumption “all birds fly” and then store only the exceptions: penguin, ostrich, and emu. But, when you see something that could be classified as a bird, you will assume it can fly, which may or may not be true.

Categorical perception is the phenomenon by which the categories possessed by an observer influences the observers’ perception (Goldstein / Hendrickson, 2009 (PDF)). This means that you will perceive something differently if it fits into a classification. Brom a business standpoint, this means that your product or service is perceived one way based on its category, no matter what it actually is in reality.

Categorical perception holds down sales of mirrorless cameras.
An extended example of the how the brand of a product category can affect the brand of a company and product is the mirrorless camera market. Mirrorless cameras are haunted by false perceptions of having poor image quality and short battery lives when in reality they are now superior to their competition in both respects.

A quick history lesson and overview of the technology will be helpful (I know, I hear the yawns, but hang in there!) When film cameras were gaining adoption in the 1890s, a photographer physically looked down the lens to preview the picture before he or she installed the plate with the film. Taking the film off and on was cumbersome and risky, so photographers looked through a twin lens, but it was expensive and not ideal. It was known since the invention of the camera that a mirror to bounce the light to photographers eye would be useful, but it wasn’t until the mechanical technology of the 1940s enabled the mirror to be quickly moved out of the way to expose the film.

Two diagrams comparing DSLR camera technology to Mirrorless camera technology.Single Lens Reflex (SLR) technology made so much sense that it dominated the camera market well into the digital revolution that replaced film. You can still buy pro and prosumer grade cameras that are SLR, or DSLR adding the D for “digital.” But it doesn’t make as much sense as it did before because we can now get a virtual preview through the digital sensor. We can see through the lens just like the olden days, just virtually instead of physically.

Removing the mirrors from the camera made the modern “mirrorless” camera. I guarantee you own a mirrorless camera and you didn’t realize it: your phone.

Smartphone technology has actually pushed mirrorless camera technology so far that it is now creating better images than DSLR cameras. Sony manufactures the vast majority of the digital imagining sensors for both cameras and camera phones, including the Apple iPhone and the Samsung S series, two smartphones known for taking stunning pictures. Unsurprisingly, Sony makes the best mirrorless pro cameras, it’s Alpha brand line.

Sony Alpha just released a camera that is measurably superior to other pro cameras, but it is still haunted by perceptions that stem from early mirrorless camera designs. Geometrically, a DSLR camera has to be larger than a mirrorless camera; you just need space for those mirrors and the path the light travels through. Marketers saw this as a key advantage, so the engineers made the first mirrorless cameras with small sensors, small lenses and small batteries. It made for a tight package, but poor image quality and a short battery life.

Modern mirrorless cameras have large lenses, standard sized sensors, and large batteries and are only slightly thinner than a comparable DSLR, but there are many advantages to mirrorless cameras like high shooting speed, amazing video, no shutter sound and no shutter blackout. But mirrorless cameras are not considered by pros as much as they should be because there is still the lingering perception that they have crappy optics and awful battery life. Decade old design decisions still haunt the mirrorless camera brand.

Either embrace or actively mitigate perceptions.

Understand, mitigate or embrace categorical perceptions.
The mirrorless camera market true example of how the brand of a product category can affect the brand of a product and it’s company.

A good brand manager needs to acknowledge the environment in which their brand lives, and either embrace or actively mitigate the perceptions that come with the industry and the product category.

We look at case studies about how brands like McLaren and Dyson navigated their categorical perceptions to success.


Black and white photo of Colin FinkleColin Finkle is a brand marketer and designer with ten years of experience helping Fortune 500 companies tell their story at retail. You can see his work at Colin Finkle’s portfolio site. You can connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter. He is also the author of the book series, the Neverborn Saga.

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