Brands improve people’s performance

When people struggle with a difficult task, using a brand can help them perform better. For example, people who drank water from a Gatorade cup exercised harder and longer.

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Today’s study from the University of Delaware and University of Minnesota is fascinating.

Say you’re in a very tough exam. 

You’re writing using a plastic pen that you got as a souvenir from Boston. It has a Harvard logo on it.

Will the pen’s logo help you perform better in the exam?

As absurd as it sounds, there’s a very good chance it will.

P.S.: If you like this tip you’ll probably also like this previous tip: Use “pseudo-sets” to control how many actions people take.

It finds that grouping actions in ‘sets’ nudges people to complete them - even if there is no logic or reason behind the set.

Use it in your UX, or to push yourself to workout more ;)


Previous tip: Uppercase brand names feel more premium (All tips here)

Brands that promise performance increase people’s actual performance in difficult tasks

Impacted metrics: Brand attitudes
Channels: Ads | Marketing communications
For: Mostly B2C
Tip type: Existing research (April 2014)

📈 Recommendation

For personal performance

When performing a difficult task (e.g. a crucial report, a difficult workout), use brands that are related to it (e.g. a bottle of water with a Red Bull logo).

The brand association will give you a confidence boost and make you perform better. Using the actual product is optional (e.g. drinking Red Bull).

For marketing

If your brand promises performance, run a small study to measure the actual performance boost your brand causes in people (e.g. Nike stands for athletic performance, so people ran 20% further when using Nike sneakers vs unbranded sneakers).

Use the results in your ads and marketing material.

🎓 Effects

  • When people struggle with a difficult task, using a brand can help them perform better.

  • The brand’s promise should be related to the task (e.g. Under Armour -> athletic performance). But the brand alone, rather than the product, is what gives the boost. The effect is entirely psychological.

  • For example, in experiments:

    • Students who took used a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) pen when taking a graduate school admission test answered more difficult questions correctly (see image below).

    • People who drank tap water from a Gatorade branded cup pressed a handgrip strengthener ~85% more times, compared to when they drank from an Ice Mountain branded cup (a water brand) or an unbranded cup

  • The effect works for some people and but not others:

    • Works for those who believe that personal qualities are mostly fixed from a young age and they can’t change them by putting effort into self-improvement (Entity theorists, in image below)

    • Doesn’t work for those who believe that if they put in the effort they can improve themselves (Incremental theorists, in image below)

  • The effect is only seen in tasks that require a lot of effort, not easy ones.

  • This is different from a placebo effect because it’s clearly impossible for the products used in experiments to improve actual performance (e.g. an MIT logo on your pen doesn’t make you better at maths).

(Questions answered in a graduate entrance exam using an MIT vs an unbranded pen - Click to zoom in)


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🧠 Why it works

  • When we fail or give up a difficult task, it’s often because we lacked confidence in our abilities.

  • Those of us that believe that our qualities and skills are largely fixed (Entity theorists), tend to depend on brand promises to boost our abilities (since we can’t improve ourselves in other ways, such as through self-improvement).

  • Because we believe brands are boosting our abilities, we feel more confident in taking on difficult tasks. In turn, we do more of the tasks successfully.

✋ Limitations

  • The effect doesn’t work if the brand promise is disconfirmed or not credible (e.g. people read that Gatorade was found to reduce performance, rather than increase it).

  • The study didn’t test how strong the effect is when the brand’s actual product is consumed (e.g. by drinking actual Gatorade instead of tap water in a Gatorade branded cup). Most likely, the sum of effects is the same or higher, but we don’t know by how much.

  • This research is limited to increases in performance in difficult tasks, driven by increased confidence. For example, whether drinking water from a cup of Pukka Tea helps someone relax (the brand’s promise is relaxing herbal tea) would be a different effect and driven by something else - if it exists.

🏢 Companies using this

  • The effect is one of the many powerful benefits of a strong brand. Companies don’t seem to be consciously using this specific effect in their brand claims at the moment.

⚡ Steps to implement

  • Make sure you have a clear brand promise (e.g. ‘Simple, inexpensive accounting’).

  • If your brand is associated with improving performance (e.g. mental, physical, health) use this effect to make your products even more attractive.

  • Run a small study to understand how much your brand (and products) actually help customers perform better.

  • Use the data in your brand claims to further strengthen your brand.


🔍 Study type

Lab experiments. United States

📖 Research

Park, J. K., & John, D. R. (April 2014). I think I can, I think I can: Brand use, self-efficacy, and performance. Journal of Marketing Research, 51(2), 233-247.

[Link to paper]

🏫 Affiliations

Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, University of Delaware and Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota. United States

Remember: This research could be disproven in the future (although this is rare). It also may not be generalizable to your situation. If it’s a risky change, always test it on a small scale before rolling it out widely.


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