Quality versus Price – Buying Brand Names or Generic Goods

“Quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten.” ~ Ed Sabol

The above quote seems to lay it all out very clearly, but looking a bit deeper, this is a sticky subject at best. Most people have made some decision on it but are quick to follow up with qualifiers when it comes to price and quality.

“Remember son, you get what you pay for. Well, maybe not all the time… You’ve got to watch yourself, ah, ahem, caveat emptor, well just be smart with your money, okay!?”
And in that seeming confusion a gem of intelligence shines through:

  • Be smart with your money.

Price and Quality

But if we zoom in even more and just consider individual purchases, should you generally spend more on name brands and quality versus generics that cost less? Does higher price mean higher quality? It should, shouldn’t it? Most people generally assume price does equal quality, but how true is this? According to the Association for Consumer Research:

“The price-quality linkage is inferential, i.e. there is no logical necessity that higher prices indicate higher quality; nor does current empirical evidence suggest a strong objective association.” – Carl Obermiller, University of Washington

We should separate out name brands from quality as while they often go hand-in-hand, they do not always go hand-in-hand, and your rationale for seeking and trusting name brands should be considered.

“Popularity is not an indication of quality.” – Vanna Bonta

Do you buy name brands because of a past history of quality, or just for prestige? I’d like to point out that in either case you are getting something for your dollar. Many in this argument are quick to brush aside extra money for prestige, but for many people this is not such a laughing matter, and frankly, it can and often should be taken seriously.


In business we might discuss moments of truth. If you see a coffee stain on a seat on an airplane, your confidence in the entire airline and the safety of riding with them could be called to question. That’s a negative moment of truth.

People instinctively know this. Let’s not belittle people’s desire to give off positive moments of truth socially or professionally by exhibiting taste and intelligence with the use of name brands. For a businesswoman it could imply success and trust when she carries an expensive purse, and for your teenage son he may be better suited to make friends and meet a nice girl wearing Nike’s instead of Walmart-brand sneakers, as shallow as that all may sound.

Conspicuous Consumption

Beyond that we have the more famous societal ill of conspicuous consumption. This is where it has gone overboard. Fancy clothes, cars, nights out, a culture – or part of it anyway – that sings about being filthy rich, flamboyant, and plain filthy, give materialism a very low place on the values scale, and rightly so. Let’s call over-materialism what happens at the expense of other, more long-term survival values, and often without the real means to afford them. Two different ills, but related to our subject.

I would still argue, as I have above, that there is a proper place for name brand consumption and even the display of it.

Would you feel more intelligent driving a Yugo or a Toyota? Even my word processor just now had no idea what a Yugo was and wanted to autocorrect it, while almost everyone knows Toyota to be one of the most dependable cars ever made. So brand names do work in helping our decisions.

There is even an intellectual argument that we discover who we are by what we purchase. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it’s kind of interesting to consider!

Saving Money

The purveyors of expensive items tout quality and prestige. At the other end of the sales spectrum you are encouraged to save money. It actually is worthwhile to spend more up front on something that is well-made and long-lasting. You save actual money in the long run, sure, but the best part is the continued enjoyment of the item.

Some items are better off cheap, and some things matter more than others:

  • Discount garbage bags?
  • Discount gas?
  • Discount meat?
  • Discount legal advice?
  • Discount medical treatment?


And the best exercise may be to consider real life examples.

  • My last $120 pair of sneakers was more comfortable and prestigious for me, but lasted only as long as my $20 pair.
  • My $200 skillet with seven layers of metals cooks evenly, works efficiently, looks great hanging in my kitchen, is safe and non-toxic stainless steel, and was frankly a great deal if you consider most people replace crappy, $20 cookware every two years, while the toxic, Teflon surface scratches off into your eggs, giving you PFOA’s, and possibly infertility and cancer!
  • I’ll never buy another Gateway computer. My daughter’s was sent back three times for new hard drives in the first year. They were wonderful about the warranty but so what! My Compaq (made by HP) on the other hand is still being reliably used every day, all day, by the author of this article, even after five years of regular use (a long life in dog or laptop time).

The complexity of the question does not compete with rocket science but is yet involved enough to warrant the persistent success of review-type agencies like Consumer Reports and other bona fide reviewers.

And this is relevant: We consistently seek out other’s reviews. We all seem to know we need the genuine experience of others to make our price and quality calculations.


The ability we need and the ability we need our kids to have lies above simply chasing name-brands, lemming-like. It’s in their ability to make calculated decisions.
The calculus includes:

  • Price
  • Current personal availability of money
  • The urgency of the purchase
  • Likely intangibles from both cheap and expensive products compared
    • Comfort
    • Prestige
    • Warranty (if any)
    • How much we like the product (look, design, etc.)
    • Our probable enjoyment of the product
  • Tangibles compared:
    • How long will it last?
    • How well will it perform?

The human mind is amazing and will make all these calculations in just – well faster than I can write about it! Where we short-circuit is when we just robotically buy Brand X and move on.


There is a difference between Starbucks’ iced mocha (no whip) and that brown sugar-water for a dollar less at McDonald’s. Guess where I go to write and get hopped-up on a rich coffee?

Across the entire world, thanks first perhaps to Henry Ford and the modern concept of uniform business systems, our purchases can be generally anticipated and reliable:
A McDonald’s cheeseburger tastes the same in Palm Bay, Florida, as it apparently does in Beijing, China (although it might not be as bad for you overseas – the subject of another article to look for on food colorings!)

The Can Opener

And one of my favorite purchases perhaps ever made, was an expensive can opener.

When I was a young bachelor and needed one, I ran out and bought the cheapest can opener I could find – for maybe just over a dollar. It didn’t cut the cans open the whole way.

I ran out again and bought a slightly more costly but still rather cheap one. It cut the cans open alright but left a wrinkled sliver of aluminum I had to carefully keep out of my food. In full, purple anger, I drove one more time to the store, determined it be the last!

I paid about twenty dollars for the finest can opener I could find. It cut cans open beautifully and cleanly back then, as it does even today. I actually still get a sense of well-being using the silly thing today, and my cans get opened clean and quick.

Or, I could have spent who knows how much money on bad can openers over the years, all in frustration and bad health! Just seeing that silly can opener in the kitchen drawer makes me feel good. But could I have gone even further – could I have gone overboard?

Could I have purchased a name-brand, gold-plated can opener? I don’t know – how much is it?

“Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives.” – William A. Foster



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