A view from Annette King

The real reason you don't ride a hoverboard to work

Many of you reading this may be too young to remember fighting over Cabbage Patch dolls or Buzz Lightyear toys.

But, if you work in this industry, it is worth remembering what wasn’t quite the hot craze of Christmas 2015. It provides us all with a valuable lesson in the wider economic importance of brands.

By this, I mean the, um, Hover Board or Hoverboard or Swagway or Soarboard or PhunkeeDuck or Airboard or…

In fact, there was never was a formal name for these things because the various devices were sourced from a range of manufacturers in Shenzhen and variously named by the local distributors, not the makers. The product’s unusual origins provide us with a rare and unusual test case of what happens to innovation in the absence of brands.

The board is, let’s be honest, an interesting product. And I am sure that many of you wanted to buy one. But you didn’t, did you? 

First of all, you didn’t know which one to buy. As my colleagues at Ogilvy Change would say: "The choice architecture was a mess." Some had lights or Bluetooth speakers, some had larger wheels, some cost more, some less. But, in the absence of recognisable brands, it was impossible to make sense of the category. As neuroscientists have observed, we don’t so much choose brands, we use brands to aid choice. When a choice baffles us, we take the safe option, which is to do nothing at all.

Second, we just felt uneasy buying something costing a few hundred pounds without the reassurance of a recognisable name. Although it is instinctive, it is perfectly rational. We intuitively understand that someone with a reputable or venerable brand identity has more to lose from selling a bad product than someone with no reputational skin in the game. Had there been a Samsung/LG/Dyson hoverboard on offer, you would have bought one in seconds.

Finally, while we were still wondering whether to take the plunge, news came in that several boards had burst into flames while charging – in one case, setting fire to a house. The problem was only confined to a few makes but, without knowing which specific brands to avoid, the news sullied the whole category. Without the brand feedback mechanism, there is no incentive for any one manufacturer to make a safer, better version of the board, since they won’t reap the gains. 

Why does this matter so much? Because the marketing conversation about brands tends to focus on hair-splitting distinctions between fairly good products. We often forget that, without this device, there simply isn’t enough trust for markets to function at all, and so perfectly good ideas may fail. Branding isn’t just something to add to great products – it’s essential to their existence.

Annette King is the chief executive of Ogilvy Group UK