The NEW Mattress Name Game

February 20, 2020 By Michael Magnuson

Running has the nice advantage of keeping my ear close to the ground when it comes to the challenges and frustrations of everyday consumers who are shopping for a mattress. Each month, we receive many hundreds of comments, questions, and reviews — and I read every single one of them. Although I can’t respond to each one personally, I do respond to some (and we try to respond to the rest as a team).

Here’s one we received today to which I did respond, and that I thought was worth highlighting here, since it relates to an issue about which I see a growing amount of confusion and frustration — both amongst consumers and within the industry. Here is the pertinent portion of the comment we received:

New versions of bed models year after year, there should be a law to where companies cannot come out with a new model of mattress until 3 years have past from the last released version, that idea of a law should also be applied to the automobile industry.

“James Dean” (YouTube user)

This reader’s frustration stems from a mattress whose materials and/or construction were changed without any change to its model name / SKU. Unfortunately, this practice has now become the norm in the online mattress category, so I am not at all singling out any specific brand on this issue. In fact, it has even trickled back up to the traditional manufacturers, some of whom are increasingly re-using the names of their most popular models. To the credit of some, such changes may be signified with the addition of a Roman numeral to the end of the model name — however IMHO this solution is still extremely confusing for the consumer, in addition to being too loosely and inconsistently applied across retail partners.

How can re-using mattress model names be misleading for consumers?

By keeping the same model name, the brand can continue to leverage all of the consumer reviews that they have accumulated to-date — along with any other goodwill, such as an accolade from Consumer Reports. As online brands were quick to understand, and traditional brands are finally realizing, reviews are likely the single most important factor for consumers in choosing which mattress to buy. The problem is that most product reviews relate to the product itself, rather than to the company or purchase experience more broadly. So if the product that is now available is not the same as the one that was being reviewed, this should be made crystal clear to the consumer. And the practice of re-using a model name is specifically designed to do the opposite.

Worse yet, being allowed to re-use reviews by keeping the same model name actually incentivizes bad behavior that we have seen from some online players already. The evil playbook goes like this:

  1. Put out a high quality product at a good price
  2. Collect a bunch of positive reviews from happy customers
  3. Reduce the quality/cost of the product
  4. To further increase profit margin, raise the price of the now inferior product (optional)
  5. On the strength of the positive reviews, which most unsuspecting consumers do not realize bear no relevance to the currently available product, watch sales continue to increase

So, is there a solution to this problem?

Yes, there is most definitely a solution — one that could be imposed by external regulators like the FTC, but I hope would instead be adopted voluntarily by the industry. The solution is quite simple: any time the materials or construction of a product is changed, the new design should be clearly delineated to the consumer by name. Even just a simple “model year” or Model Name 2.0 type of distinction would suffice — as long as it is used clearly and consistently across all channels, from the online presentation and advertising to the in-store materials and labeling on the product itself. The litmus test is that a consumer should always know exactly a) which version they have, b) which version they are looking at buying, and c) which version a specific review or average star rating is for.

With this solution, consumers would not be presented reviews or star ratings of a prior version as though they are representative of the currently available product. Any time a product is changed, it would start over with a blank slate of reviews. This does not mean that reviews of prior versions should be expunged from the internet, or that they have no value at all — to the contrary, they may in fact highlight a track record of customer satisfaction that still bears relevance to future consumers. However, such reviews would be clearly labeled as reviews of a prior version, and would not be shown on any product page that pertains to the current version, nor counted toward any average star ratings shown on such product pages.

Mind you, I recognize that adopting such a practice could place companies at a competitive disadvantage in today’s environment. As such, I don’t realistically expect any companies to take action on this until or unless consensus emerges within the industry as to a convention by which product naming can evolve to reflect ordinary design changes over time.

Should companies be prevented from making changes to a product?

Of course not. And it’s worth noting that the reader may not have even been serious about this aspect of their proposal. In any case, product redesigns should allow companies to introduce improvements — whether through the use of newer, better materials or through improved construction methods. The problem here is that in many cases (sadly), such product changes have the opposite effect — whether intentionally (the infamous “de-spec” maneuver) or unintentionally. But of course, there is no way for legislators to opine on whether product changes constitute improvements or not. And as such, there is no way that regulators should ever interfere with a company’s ability to update its products.

Isn’t it ironic?

When I first started GoodBed, one of the chief complaints from mattress shoppers was the common practice of giving the same mattress different names and covers in each retailer — a practice that has been referred to as the “mattress name game.” Of course, the purpose of this was to prevent consumers from being able to compare prices across stores. For years though, I tried to explain to the industry that in addition to being a huge point of frustration for consumers, this profusion of model names was preventing any one of these model names from amassing the quantity of reviews that a consumer needs in order to have confidence in making a purchase.

Naturally, this landscape of thousands of model names left a huge opportunity that the digitally-savvy online brands were all too happy to exploit when they came into the market, and with great success. They not only capitalized on consumers’ frustration with the deceptive name game system, but also gained advantage through the ability to quickly achieve a critical mass of reviews for their one model (or very limited selection of models).

As a result of this disruption though, we have now seen the pendulum swing too far in the opposite direction. While we once had (and for some brands, still do have) way too many model names, we now need more model names — at least insofar as to ensure that we are reflecting any changes to their materials or construction over time. I hope this time the industry won’t wait for a new crowd of competitors to force them to address this problem, or for an external regulatory body to impose new laws and red tape on them. Rather, let’s do right by the consumer and develop a simple and clear standard that can be adopted voluntarily across the industry. I would gladly promise to use the GoodBed platform to support such a solution.

One last point — for those industry leaders who are really paying attention…

In closing, it’s worth noting that as a mattress brand, whether you’re an online brand or a traditional brand, you may in fact be creating problems for yourself by making product changes that aren’t really necessary in the first place. As we discovered years ago, mattress shoppers care less than you’d think about product improvements. So, one solution to the problem highlighted in this article is simply to make less frequent changes, especially for your most popular and successful products — arguably, far less frequent, or even never. Perhaps some smart person in this industry will finally start heeding this advice next…