Behind the brands

Tuesday, July 6th, 1999

Brand loyalty doesn’t start from sheer nothingness. Often there is some reason why you choose a particular gas station, bank, grocery store, clothing store, soft drink, network newscast, or weekly newspaper. You tried it once and you liked it. You felt as if you got value for your dollar, or at least, a quality product. You draw the simple a-to-b conclusion if I go back to that brand, I will have the same satisfactory experience.
Fox gave me The Simpsons, they must know what they’re doing when they give me Family Guy or Futurama. When I see John Pruitt’s face on the screen (a brand in itself), I trust him to bring me the news. That Gap t-shirt looked so cool, if I go back I will find more cool stuff. I like Coca-Cola, so if I buy new Coke…oh, wait. Hmm.
Behind the surface level of a brand image, past shiny logos and warm, fuzzy commercials lies an increasingly ugly truth: consolidation, mergers, outsourcing (a clever way to say we sell it, but we don’t make it) and handshake deals make it more and more likely that no matter what brand you buy, the product or service you’re actually getting could come from darn near anywhere, or anyone-including people you don’t want to do business with.
At the gas station, fill up with Texaco or Shell-it doesn’t make a difference-literally. They’ve merged their gas refining operations. They make basically the same stuff for both pumps. Does your car run better when it comes out of a pump with an Exxon logo? They may have bought it from Chevron. In a Wall Street Journal article last week, these examples were cited as new challenges for marketers-how do they keep you caring about what kind of gas you put in your car? Well, my answer (not theirs) is if Chevron or any of the others offer real value-cheaper price, faster service, heck, even a free car wash, free coffee, and a smile-I’m there. If not, the mystic allure of ‘Techron’ isn’t going to make a bit of difference.
Hate America Online? Don’t choose CompuServe as an alternative. Although marketed as a completely different company, it’s now owned lock, stock, and server by AOL.
Have a problem with Delta or another airline? Choose your alternatives carefully-with codesharing, you may well be taking a trip with-and handing money to-the folks you want to shun.
So what’s the point of loyalty? Folks traditionally define loyalty as something that is earned, in the same category as respect. It’s also a deal, a two-way street. I’ll be loyal to you-whether you’re a person, a product, a company, or a local TV channel-and you’ll keep giving me whatever it is I want the way I want it.
And blind loyalty-a one-way street-is what most marketers are counting on. They hope you’re not paying too much attention-that you’re too busy to investigate and make a smart choice every time.