As the recession bites, shoppers go looking for own-label products. Or do they?

We should know better, of course. That when times get tough we can save good money by trading down from Heinz baked beans, Nescafé coffee or Kellogg's cornflakes to supermarket own-label products, but how many of us actually do? Not as many as the likes of Sainsbury and Tesco would have us believe, consumer experts insist, and it's all down to the dark arts that build our emotional relationship with our favourite brands.

"Branding is so much about psychology it's almost frightening," observes Robert Opie, consumer historian and curator of London's Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising.

Brands first hit the mass market in the 19th century, when industrialisation led to the first mass-produced packaged food goods and factories would – quite literally – brand their logo onto an item. But branding wasn't just about identifying a product, it was an emotional lever: a way of persuading consumers previously used to buying only local goods to trust goods produced elsewhere.

Among Britain's first food and drinks brands were Bass beer and Lyle's Golden Syrup. Then, as now, however, food and drinks brands were made up of a number of different elements in addition to their manufacturer's name and the product itself, Opie adds. There was the way that name was written – its typography, colour and design. The style of the packaging. And then, of course, there were assumptions and expectations about the brand created by what the company claimed about its product through advertising.

The effect of this is that, even today, people still buy a brand and keep buying it because of a combination of rational reasons and less tangible, emotional responses.

"It's about value, and the value of a food brand isn't just in the product's quality, but a range of other qualities and associations an individual will place on it," explains Paul Buckley, a consumer psychologist at the Cardiff School of Management. "It's also more than just about an individual's values, it's about the values of the people they mix with and what is socially acceptable to them."

Food and drinks companies have used a variety of tactics over the years to shape our emotional responses to the brands we buy. Cadbury, for example, has long used purple in its branding: a colour traditionally associated with royalty and nobility in human psychology.

The founders of smoothies producer Innocent consciously picked a name for their brand that would appeal to people hankering for a healthier option without chemicals or additives. New cake brand Mr Bunbury, which launched last month, meanwhile, opted for Victorian-style script on its retro packaging, capitalising on consumers' current preference for long-standing, traditional, classic brands.

Nostalgia is a theme commonly used to target parents returning to buying a particular food or drink product – breakfast cereals, sweets or crisps in particular – that they've not bought for themselves for years but return to once they have children of their own. Consistency and tradition, meanwhile, are key brand facets food and drinks companies emphasise when times get tough.

It's all about offering reassurance to consumers by playing up the consistency and reliability of long-standing brand names, says Johnny Acton, co-author of The Branded Cookbook. "You know exactly what you are getting with a can of Heinz beans," he says. "It's reliable. It tastes like you think it's always tasted. It's nostalgic, and because it's been around so long it's comforting."

Longevity is a feature many food brands are stressing for just this reason. "An obvious time for a brand to play the heritage card is when times get tough," Opie explains. By the same measure, reformulating or redesigning a brand is not a good thing to do during a recession.

"It's just not what people are looking for at the moment. Our psychological human make-up is to want certain things to be the same – which of course totally goes against marketers' innate desire to always make things new and exciting."

Brands are a short cut in a world of growing consumer choice, according to Mat Hayward, head of insight at brand company Fitch – which is why they command a premium price. They cost more because of the additional design and marketing invested in them, and food companies behind them know that, if they find the right emotional trigger, consumers will pay a higher price. "Given the choice, most choose a strong brand personality over saving a few pennies," he says.

The big question over the months ahead is the effect recession will have on our willingness to pay a bit more for the food and drinks brands we love. For, in the words of Gwyn Burr, customer director at Sainsbury: "Everything is up for grabs".

"We are seeing a significant switch amongst consumers to own brand products – sales of Sainsbury's Basics range are up 40 per cent year-on-year," she explains. "Our research also shows 30 per cent of shoppers claim once they've switched [from branded to own-label products] they won't switch back."

There is certainly ample evidence that our relationship with food and drinks brands has shifted in recent months – the most significant being the dramatic sales increase enjoyed by discount food chains such as Aldi and Lidl. Neither stocks established brand names. But that doesn't mean goods aren't branded. Instead, each has developed a colourful range of their own "sub-brands" – Crownfield corn flakes, Camp Largo baked beans, Nostia tomatoes, and so on – designed to make shopping in their stores more "engaging".

Perhaps the most significant factor driving the rise of discount food chains and own label products is that retailers are getting better and better at copying branded equivalents. Today, a scientific technique is used to work out the precise ingredients and proportions in a particular branded food to produce a cheaper, own-label copy.

Whether all of this can negate the billions of pounds spent over decades by food companies on establishing and maintaining their brands, however, is by no means a foregone conclusion.

Just last month Heinz tomato ketchup, Heinz beans and Cadbury chocolate emerged as the three branded food products cash-strapped mums would be least likely give up, according to research for Just under half of those surveyed refuse to scrimp on brands despite feeling guilty about spending too much money.

"With staying in the new going out, there is clear evidence that consumers are making sacrifices in one area of their lives to treat themselves in another, and when they treat themselves they want to do so well – which is why sales of 12-year-old whiskies are currently going through the roof," Hayward points out.