Brands don’t exist in a vacuum: they are judged by the virtues or vices of their industry and the meta-brand surrounding it – Mike May, VP Strategy at the agency Huge, explores the effects of meta-brands and how to escape them.

A successful brand strategy is one where brand stewards identify the attributes that will differentiate the brand and proactively work to associate them in the minds of consumers. However, sometimes consumers see brands through a broader lens of the entire industry. When an industry has a particularly strong reputation – good or bad – consumers often assume that what they believe about the industry is true of the brands that comprise it.

For example, many people see non-profits as mission-driven and generous and they are quick to apply those attributes to many non-profit organizations – even those that do not deserve it.

Goodwill Industries was recently ranked the top brand globally in demonstrating World Value and Impact, despite a model that collects donated merchandise and then sells it at a profit, donates $0 to causes, and pays most of its workers minimum wage while its CEO brings in $2.3 million per year. Still, many consumers see them as a charity doing good deeds and are slow to scrutinize the disconnect between the company’s stated mission and operating model.

More common are industries whose dominating negative reputations - including healthcare, telecom, airlines, utilities, credit cards and news media - are dragging down individual brands like an albatross around their necks.

Like Goodwill, some brands don’t deserve the reputation of their industry. Not every credit card is usurious, and the Maryland DMV actually offers a relatively user-centric experience. Of course, plenty of brands deserve the poor reputation of their industries, else the industry would not be as reviled in the first place.

It’s a feature of brands, not a bug.

Our tendency to suspend critical analysis and just believe what is convenient is actually a feature of brands, not a bug. Their role is to simplify our decision-making. Without them, we would need to spend hours each week at the grocery store reading ingredient labels, or only buy a new grill once we’d trialed it alongside the competition and come to an empirical conclusion.

Instead, by reaching a conclusion and ceasing to challenge it with new evidence, we consumers are doing exactly what brands need us to do in order for brands to work.

The wiring of our brains that allows brands to work in this way is called confirmation bias. This is our tendency to pay more attention to evidence that supports our preconceived notions than we do to evidence that contradicts them.

If we believe that Carhart apparel is durable, we are likely to dismiss as fluke a jacket whose seams begin to pull after three months. Conversely, if our conception is that Uniqlo is cheap because it won’t last long, we similarly discount the contrary evidence presented by the $25 joggers we have worn 3 days per week for the last year and a half.

Meta brands work the same way. If we believe something about them, we are resistant to something contrary we might learn about individual brands that sit underneath them. They are the reason it’s easy to parrot things like “all health insurers are bandits” and “flying coach on any airline is an awful experience” even if we’ve personally experienced the opposite.

Differentiating from the meta-brand

Brands in these cases need to break free – but not just from their direct competitors. When consumers hate your entire industry, being perceived as the least predatory lender or the hospital driving the smallest percentage of patients into personal bankruptcy is not a path to a positive Net Promoter Score.

Instead, these brands need to put some daylight between themselves and the industry that is hamstringing their identity. A superb example of this is CarMax, a brand that has shaken off all the stigmas of the used car industry and car dealerships. There is buying a used car, and then there is shopping at CarMax.

While the contest of meta brands versus individual brands appears to be a battle of strength, it is also a race to reach the consumer first. For brands to begin to wiggle free from their industry’s grip, they need more customers who see positive aspects of the brand before they are influenced by the negative aspects of the industry. Mechanically that means reaching users new to the category (for example, CNN targeting Gen Z who have previously gotten their news from TikTok, or hospitals finding ways to connect with patients before they have a critical need).

Being new can also work. In this era of startups and disruption, the energy around new brands can rival that of the meta brand itself – particularly when the new brand’s objective is to disrupt a hated industry and the brand becomes an ally to the users whose frustration grew the meta brand’s influence in the first place.

New brands are not limited to new companies. Just as Casper positioned the rest of the mattress industry as unnecessarily opaque and burdensome, Ally Bank helped position much of the rest of retail banking as insensitive and even hostile towards consumers. The difference between the two is that Casper entered the industry as a startup and Ally is a new brand on an old business, replacing GMAC after the auto industry bailout.

Health insurance giant Cigna is attempting a similar strategy through a strategic partnership with startup Oscar to service small businesses. Unburdened by the baggage of the industry it was created to disrupt, Oscar appears as an ally to customers frustrated with health insurance. Cigna is hoping that the Oscar brand at the front door will obscure the Cigna mechanics underneath.

The importance of the full experience

While it is marketing’s job to communicate this separated brand perception, it is only achievable through a meaningfully differentiated brand experience which requires integration across the entire organization.

CarMax can claim a better experience because its prices are not negotiable, buyers can return any car within 30 days for any reason, and the financing process takes a fraction of the time of a traditional dealer. If Chipotle’s burritos were made in the back kitchen out of site with ingredients of unknown provenance, it would be Taco Bell.

In a perfect world, marketers would enjoy full-throated operational support in a brand repositioning. The real world rarely complies.

Often it is the brand marketer charged with building a reputation that casts off the chains of an industry captor, without leadership across the company fully on board in creating a meaningfully different brand experience. Here, understanding how confirmation bias works at least allows brand marketers to use it in their favor to escape their industry’s negative connotations.

Marketers can move the needle with select users and start to build organizational momentum and consensus. By themselves they are limited in their ability to fully extricate the company from the meta brand. It is the brand steward’s job to position around what meaningful differentiators exist, but for the positioning to stick it needs to be supported by an authentic brand experience.