– Susan Hopp, Partner, 45 Degrees/Minneapolis

I recently stopped at Shuang Hur Oriental Market (my go-to store for Vietnamese coffee) on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis, and came away with an interesting branding experience.

As I passed the fresh meat counter with pork hooves and other un-named animal parts, I was reminded that I’m not their primary target audience – I like that – but I always feel welcome and I know the younger staff speaks English. I trust the store.

On the way out, my eye caught an entire aisle of instant ramen noodle soups! Wow. I had never even tried one and now here were literally hundreds of options from China, Thailand, South Korea, and more. I thought this could be the place to find an authentic product with the best texture and taste.

Well, I quickly realized this might not be a quick grab and go because I had nothing to base my selection on. This is something that does not usually happen in America. We live in a highly advertised and branded world and since we grow up immersed in this culture, we naturally know how things relate to each other. So it was interesting and surprising and, yes, a bit frustrating to walk into an environment where I see that products are indeed highly branded, based on something each company feels is important, but the brands didn’t mean anything to me. I was not emotionally connected to any of them.

Brands – and brand loyalties – are slowly developed through customer interaction and common cultural experiences. It starts by a first encounter – hopefully a positive one. Growing up in Minnesota I personally know Skippy Peanut Butter’s brand, but I cannot tell the difference between Nongshim’s Shincup Noodle Soup and Namchow Little Cook Instant Noodles.

How does one choose a product when one has a different cultural background, no prior personal knowledge of the product, there’s a language barrier, and there is no one to ask? What informs one’s buying decision then? I looked for what I know. Nice readable type. Interesting colors. Targeted messaging. Pretty packaging. Graphics. Price. Shelf placement.

Simple bagged packages took up most of the long aisle. My thoughts: Most popular? Cheapest? Kid friendliest? How bad is bad? Cute anime characters on one of them! Why are there so many? How different could they be? They all look the same. Too time consuming to choose. There’s one that I can read: Pad Thai.

A small section at the end had soups in cups and bowls and more expensive looking packages. My thoughts: Better? Adult audience? Most expensive? Definitely more convenient for people on the go. How good is good? Does better packaging mean better quality? I can at least differentiate by the containers. I like fewer options!

I looked around for a young staff person or customer to ask for recommendations. (Remember, seventy percent of consumers trust brand recommendations from friends, but only 10% trust advertising, according to a recent report from Forrester Research.) No luck. I longed for little personal notes attached to the shelves like one finds at wine stores: Terrific buy, packed with flavor and complexity. 95+RP.

There was very little English so type fonts didn’t matter. Most all packages were bright, busy and colorful (orange/red/green/black) so color didn’t matter. There were no prices posted so cost didn’t matter. They all had photos of the product.

I felt overwhelmed by too much “sameness” and almost made no choice. I did not have any answers and did not have a method of choosing the best one for me. (Heed this warning, you marketers out there.) But I had invested time and effort, and wasn’t about to give up. I reduced my expectations and grabbed a sampling of the only differentiators I could see – the container types. Took me 30 seconds. I don’t know if I will like any of them but I took the first step.

Two charmingly cute girls checked me out and I asked if any of my purchases were good ones. They giggled and said they never eat those! I didn’t have a response. I felt a bit silly, but more importantly, I also felt happy to be a little more connected to their world.

I’m looking forward to testing my buys – 8 soups for $8.62! And the next time I buy ramen noodle soup, I will be a better-informed consumer – with an emotional experience to back up my choice of purchase. Perhaps I will become a loyal customer of one of the brands I chanced upon.