Thursday, 25 October 2007

Brand Loyalty

The American Heritage Dictionary defines brand as " kind, grade, or make, as indicated by a stamp, trademark, or the like: the best brand of coffee." Whatis.Com defines brand as "a product, service, or concept that is publicly distinguished from other products, services, or concepts so that it can be easily communicated and usually marketed." Advertising legend David Ogilvy defined brand as "The intangible sum of a product's attributes: its name, packaging, and price, its history, its reputation, and the way it's advertised."

However one defines the word brand, it is safe to say that they have been around for some time. In ancient Rome the businesses had names, just as businesses do now (even brothels advertised their names on signs). In medieval and renaissance England, inns had names like The Pig and Whistle and The Frog and Nightgown. But it was not until the introduction of packaged goods in the 18th and 19th centuries that branding really took off. Industrialisation made the mass production of goods ranging from soap to textiles possible. Manufacturing companies would literally brand their logos into the crates or barrels in which these goods were transported (hence, the word brand). Brands served much the same purpose that the names of shops in Rome and the names of inns in medieval England served--to create product recogition in the general public. To give one an idea of how early branding started taking place in the Industrial Revolution, consider that Pear's Soap, first sold in 1789, is believed to be the world's first brand to have been trademarked. As the 19th century progressed and more products were mass produced, more brands came into being. Many of them are still with us today: Coca-Cola, Quaker Oats, and Wrigley's Spearmint gum. By 1900 branding was a well established practice; it was that year that J. Walter Thompson published a house ad explaining the practice.

Of course, with the creation of brands there also arose the concept of brand loyalty. Brand loyalty is quite simply the marked preference of any given consumer to buy one particular brand over other brands. I am sure all of us know at least one person (probably more) who prefers Ford automobiles over Chevys or Coca-Cola over Pepsi. Indeed, often brand loyalty in such individuals may be so intense that it takes the form of outright zealotry. That having been said, I think brand loyalty (at least of the more extreme sort) exists only with regards to certain products. After all, there are many, many brands of soap on the market, but one does not hear individuals preaching the superiority of one brand of soap over others or wearing the logo of a particular brand of soap on his jacket. While people do not seem overzealous in their loyalty to a particular brand of soap, however, there are other brands of products about which they might be downright fanatical.

Perhaps nowhere is this more true than with regards to automobiles. Indeed, car owners can declare their loyalty to any one of the major automotive makers with a large array of merchandise, from key chains to t-shirts. Not being a collector of automotive memorabilia, I am not sure when such merchandise was first introduced, but it has been around for as long as I can remember. Of course, brand loyalty among car owners goes far beyond buying merchandise bearing the logos of their favourite brands. Among some people can actually take the form of fanaticism. In fact, I rather suspect more arguments have been started over which is better, Ford or Chevy, than arguments over which is the better political party, Democratic or Republican. When it comes to cars, I must admit that I am as guilty as anyone of brand loyalty. My father generally drove Fords (although he had no brand loyalty to them--our cattle truck was an old Chevrolet...), but I grew up to be a Chrysler man. In fact, my favourite car among those I've driven was a Plymouth Valiant. Of course, I have never been vehement about the superiority of Chryslers over Fords. As to the superiority of Chryslers over Chevys, well, I think just about anything is superior to a Chevy. The worst car I ever drove was a Chevrolet Impala--it spent more time in the shop than on the road...

I am not sure the sort of brand loyalty that exists among car owners quite exists elsewhere, although if it does it might be among soda drinkers. And just as car drivers can proclaim their brand loyalty through various merchandise, so too can soda drinkers. Soft drink merchandising has existed for some time--the first of the many famous Coca-Cola serving trays was made all the way back in 1897. Since then there have been glasses, cups, coolers, clocks, calenders, and so on. And while soda drinkers are not quite as inclined to argue over the superiority of Coke over Pepsi the way car drivers might argue over the superiority of Ford over Chevy, they can quite vehement in their preferences in what they drink. Many Coke drinkers (myself included) will refuse to drink Pepsi unless they absolutely have to (and even then, we don't enjoy it). The same generally holds true of devoted Pepsi drinker with regards to Coke. Perhaps no better example of brand loyalty can be found than the debacle known as "New Coke." In 1985 Coca-Cola Company replaced its famous drink with a sweeter imposter. The reaction from devoted Coca-Cola drinkers was outright rage that their drink of choice might be replaced by a drink that, well, tasted a lot like Pepsi. Many devoted Coke drinkers, myself included, began hoarding Coca-Cola. We also deluged Coca-Cola Company with demands that they bring the original (and as far as many of were concerned, the only) Coca-Cola back. Less than three months after New Coke had been introduced, Coca-Cola Company resumed manufacturing the one and only, original Coca-Cola. As to New Coke, well, it would eventually fade away. Coca-Cola Company stopped manufacturing it in 2002.

Fanatical, brand loyalty is not only to be found among car drivers and soda drinkers, but also among cigarette smokers. Anyone who knows a smoker probably also knows that smoker has his or her favourite brand, which they almost always buy. Pall Mall smokers will only begrudgingly smoke Marlboros. Winston smokers will rarely buy packs of Pall Malls. The health concerns over smoking have largely curtailed much of the merchandising connected with the habit, but over the years there have been thousands of promotional products emblazoned with the logos of cigarette brands, from ashtrays to calenders. The brand loyalty of smokers may best be illustrated by a slogan used for Tareyton cigarettes in the Sixties: "Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch!"

Brand loyalty also existed to some degree in comic book fandom. From the Sixties until recently, comic books fans could be divided into DC fans and Marvel fans. Most of us read comic books from both companies, but most of us favoured one company over another. And many were downright fanatical in their devotion to one company or another. DC fans might point to the company's long history and its roster of legendary characters. Marvel fans (at least in the Sixties) might point to the quality of that company's writing and art. I always tended to favour DC myself, although I also read and loved Marvel as well. For me it came down to the characters. Batman and Green Lantern (Alan Scott, not Hal Jordan) have always been my favourite superheroes. And they belonged to DC.

Where there is a product or service, there is going to be brand loyalty. And with some products or services that brand loyalty may verge on fanaticism. I have no doubt there are people who are fanatical in their devotion to Nike, people who would use no other stereo than Pioneer, and folks whose love for Hewlett-Packard is unmatched. To a degree I think brand loyalty evolves simply out of people's pleasant experiences with various products. I have had very pleasant experiences with Chryslers and unpleasant experiences with Chevys, so I am loyal to Chrysler. I have always preferred the taste of Coke over Pepsi, so I drink Coke regularly. People become loyal to brands because they have had good experiences with those brands over the years.

That having been said, I think there could be another dimension to brand loyalty. Quite simply, it is a means of bonding with other people. Two strangers might meet and find they have little to talk about until one of them notices the other is drinking Coke. From there they have a link and they can strike up a conversation. To a small degree brand loyalty links to others who are also loyal to a particular brand. Indeed, there are clubs devoted to collecting Coca-Cola memorabilia, Studebaker cars, and so on. In a consumerist society, strangely enough, brand loyalty is something which can bring people together.

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