TCS Daily


Brand Matters

By James D. Miller - July 10, 2003 12:00 AM

The gay marriage debate is really a fight over whether to expand the marriage brand name. Successful brand names signal quality. Companies like brand names because they quickly convey information to consumers; for example, even though you may never have been to Northampton's McDonald's, you probably know what a dining experience there entails.

"Marriage", too, is a brand name; perhaps the world's most successful. Knowing a couple is married tells you a lot about them. Marriage also seems to bring about many benefits as couples who get married tend to stay together longer and do a better job raising children. Indeed, marriage is so successful that many Americans pay a substantial tax penalty just for the privilege of legally using the marriage brand name. If you wanted to start a fast-food restaurant you would pay a fair amount for the right to call your restaurant McDonald's because of what this brand name signals. Similarly, many couples are willing to pay higher taxes for the signaling benefits of marriage.

Should we expand the marriage brand name to cover committed homosexual unions? Although brand name analysis can't answer this question, it can objectively frame the issues.

Imagine you own a company that has an enormously successful branded product. Everyone associates your brand name with quality. Someone suggests, however, selling another good under this brand. Clearly, the second good would benefit from association with your admired brand. Furthermore, if this second good proved popular, it might someday even help sales of the first product.

Of course, expanding the brand name might confuse consumers. If hardware stores started calling themselves McDonald's, customers wouldn't know what to expect upon entering a McDonald's establishment. Furthermore, if a few customers morally objected to an additional good covered under your brand, then sales of your first product would suffer. If, for example, McDonald's were an all-vegetarian restaurant whose customers morally opposed the eating of meat, it would be costly for them to allow a few hamburger joints to start using the McDonald's name. Even if you considered it ludicrous for anyone to morally object to the consumption of hamburgers, you would still need to recognize that by selling hamburgers this formerly all-vegetarian McDonald's would be putting off some potential customers.

Allowing homosexual couples to marry would egalitarianly spread the benefits of the married brand name over more Americans. But, alas, whenever you extend a brand you risk diluting its value. Marriage is a great brand that should be both protected and promoted; unfortunately, however, these two goals may conflict.

Brand name analysis proves that civil unions for gay couples can't fully substitute for marriage. If you started a fast-food restaurant, it would be easier to call your place McDonald's than to use some new unknown brand name. Sure, in time you could build up this new brand to become as locally well-respected as McDonald's name, but for the near future at least, you're better off going with the existing brand.

In Slate.com, Michael Kinsley wrote that we should avoid the fight over gay marriage by privatizing marriage. Kinsley's plan, I suppose, would even allow a man to get married to his goldfish, regardless of his goldfish's gender. By allowing anyone to get married, however, Kinsley's privatization plan would destroy marriage's brand value.

Perhaps McDonald's should leverage its brand name by opening some slightly different types of restaurants. What McDonald's should never do, however, is allow anyone to use the McDonald's name for then their brand would become meaningless as it would no longer convey any information. Brands only prosper when protected from unreasonable encroachment.

State governments control the marriage brand name through their ability to set rules of entry into matrimony. To protect this brand, they need not necessarily stop all types of expansion. But, to privatize marriage and deprive the brand of all protection would deprive the brand of all value.

James D. Miller writes The Game Theorist column for TCS and is the author of Game Theory at Work.
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