Having trouble completing a difficult task? Try working a familiar, branded product into the equation and you may find the going much easier. For instance, drinking water from a cup with a Gatorade logo can improve your performance during strenuous athletic exercise. This result and others were found by Professor Debbie John and her former PhD student, Ji Kyung Park, now an assistant professor at the University of Delaware. 

Their work, “I Think I Can, I Think I Can: Brand Use, Self-Efficacy, and Performance” (Journal of Marketing Research 2014), lists this experiment and several others that showcase this power of branded products.

John and Park had previously done several studies showing that consumers “take on” some of the personality traits of the brands they use and wondered if brands could have an even stronger effect—helping consumers succeed at really challenging tasks. It is important to remember that the products themselves in the study have no functional qualities that could account for better performance—the Gatorade cup is not imparting any special power to the quite normal H2O within. The marked benefits are solely coming from the brand name.

“We ran a study where we asked students to take a short math test with some really difficult questions,” John says. “One half of the students took the test with a pen that was engraved with ‘Massachusetts Institute of Technology,’ while the other half of students used a regular pen. Many of the students who used the MIT pen did better on the test. We thought it would be fun to try this out, but we were surprised how strong the results were. According to our reasoning, using an MIT pen gave students confidence in their math abilities, and they persisted in trying to answer the really difficult math questions.”

Through their experiments, John and Park found that not everyone experiences the beneficial effect of brand use; it depends on the person’s “implicit self-theory.” They found that those who think that their own abilities cannot be improved on their own get a boost in self-efficacy and performance when they use a branded product during a difficult task. Others who do think they have the capabilities to improve their personal qualities on their own do not experience the same boost in self-efficacy from branded products and thus do not increase their task performance.

A key takeaway from this research for companies is that they can target their advertising in different ways to reach these disparate audiences. For the first type of people, advertising could focus on how the product can help consumers succeed at challenging tasks relevant to the use of the brand. For the other type, advertising should focus on “providing a learning opportunity”—offering tips on how to get the best performance out of the product.

The takeaway for individuals is simpler: “Being successful at challenging tasks doesn’t just take ability—it takes confidence in your abilities to get the job done,” John says. “Using a powerful brand can sometimes give you the confidence to persevere and try harder.”

For more on the latest research, check out the Carlson School magazine