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April 28, 2009

Brand Loyalty

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

It seems that people like to choose sides, to team up. That includes the old 1950s business about in-groups and out-groups, a situational selection of an identity and the inherent opposition to people or entities not of that identity. In some cases, such identities can be formal (being a frat house member, an Army enlistee, an employee of a business firm or government agency, etc.) or informal (a Boston Red Sox fan).

By "situational," I refer to the fact that an individual can define himself in terms of a number of memberships or affinities simultaneously, being aware of one or another as situations arise. For instance, if Martians were to land a flying saucer on the White House lawn and demand that Earth capitulate to their demands [oh, maybe that happened already], many people would start thinking of themselves as members of the human race in opposition to those cussed space aliens. Or when folks deplane at Heathrow airport near London and get in line for passport control check they are, for a few minutes anyway, acutely aware of their citizenship of the country whose passport they bear.

Such identification needn't be to a group or organization. It can be to a product or product brand. This attachment can be due to satisfaction with the branded products in the past or identification with a brand perceived as being of high status (usually) or perhaps a combination of those factors and others.

Extended identification with a brand in the form of repeated purchases of the product can be said to be a demonstration of "brand loyalty" -- something more tangible than simply wearing a tee shirt sporting a logotype.

So brand loyalty exists. What I wonder is whether it is a kind of social constant or if it is a declining practice. Since brands do die off, it's clear that brand loyalty isn't forever. Yet brand names have value. They are a component of the "goodwill" aspect of a company's market worth. They are the basis for the marketing tactic of "brand extensions" -- New Coke, Classic Coke, Diet Coke, Cherry Coke, Lemon Coke and perhaps others I'm not aware of instead of separate brands for each of these soft drinks.

To be more specific, I wonder if there is less brand loyalty nowadays compared to 50 or 60 years ago when the USA was supposedly a hotbed of conformity, a seemingly fertile ground for brand loyalty. I know that market researchers devote a good deal of study to brand images and customer loyalty. What I'm not sure of is whether enough similar studies were conducted in the 1950s to allow a real comparison. (Readers who are familiar with research literature on this matter are encouraged to comment and present findings.)

Since I lack data I'll do my usual routine, a mixture of speculation and personal anecdotes.

When I shop for groceries I tend to be a creature of habit, buying the brands I'm comfortable with even though others might be cheaper. On the other hand, if a favored brand is out of stock, I'll usually select another one. Sometimes this leads to permanent brand-switching.

At the other extreme of price and durability are automobiles. Some people (usually men) can be extremely brand-loyal when it comes to cars. This seemed especially so when I was young, a major divide being between Ford-guys and Chevy-guys.

Once upon a time -- 1932-1949 -- there was a real reason for this team-choosing: Ford and Chevrolet cars differed more than they do now. Heck, make that Ford Motor Company cars and cars from most other makers.

It all had to do with the aging Henry Ford. He was a self-taught engineer (nothing intrinsically wrong with that). And after two failed attempts at creating a viable automobile-making company, he succeeded beyond anyone's dreams. Thanks to the fabled Model T, Ford was the dominant brand in the USA from around 1910 through the mid-1920s. Then market share began to slip. General Motors' Chevrolet brand and other makes offering more style, comfort and better engineering were more tempting to potential buyers than the T which, although modernized somewhat, competed mainly on price.

Finally Henry capitulated and replaced the T with the Model A. But the A, like the T, had a four-cylinder motor whereas Chevrolet and other low-priced brands were beginning to offer sixes. By this time Ford was in his later 60s, used to being absolute ruler of the company he owned, and convinced that he knew best how cars should be engineered. Plus, he had developed a strong reluctance to following the design and engineering paths of rival firms.

All of these factors (and doubtless a few others) resulted in Ford cars being even more different from rivals than they had been in the past. For example, Ford refused to be seen as a follower in the shift from four to six cylinder engines; instead, in 1932, the company came out with a V-8 motor. For years, Ford cars continued to have cable-linked "mechanical" brakes rather than the newer hydraulic-linked brakes. While rivals went to independent front suspensions using coil springs, Ford stuck with a rigid front axle supported by a transverse leaf spring. By 1940, a Ford buyer would have a car with a peppy flat-head V-8 motor coupled with a number of archaic features, whereas a buyer of competing Chevrolets or Plymouths would get a more refined car with a lesser motor. These were real differences that affected brand loyalty in those days.

It wasn't until the 1955 model year that the major low-priced brands aligned in terms of major features; the final factor was the introduction of overhead-valve V-8 engines by Chevrolet and Plymouth. Ford had abandoned its old brake and suspension systems by the time the redesigned 1949 models were introduced. Its flat-head V-8 yielded to overhead valves in 1954. After 1955, brand loyalties continued, but reasons for this were less compelling.

My family never had long-term brand loyalty, instead adopting more of a pack behavior. (If you want to be spared details beloved by car-wallahs, you have my permission to skip over the following paragraph.)

My father bought a 1936 Ford coupe -- the only Ford purchase any of us ever made. Then he went GM, buying Pontiacs in 1941 and 1951 and a Buick Skylark in 1962. He also bought a 1956 DeSoto, a Chrysler product; this was because the Chrysler wrap-around windshields had less distortion than those on GM cars. He bought a 1961 Volkswagen, and this led to the rest of us getting VWs: my mom a 1965 Karmann-Ghia, me a used '63 K-G and my sister another Beetle. By the late 60s my mom had a Volvo 144 and I had a 142 (the first of the square Volvos). My dad had Porsches, a 912, then a 911, and I bought a 914. I'll skip a few years to mention that by the 1980s we were a Honda family -- my dad had two fairly early small Civics and a Civic sedan as his last car; my mother had an Accord coupe, I had a Civic hatchback coupe and my sister a Prelude and later a station wagon.

Because I was a GM supplier I got good discounts and bought three GM cars even though they weren't my first choices. Today we seem to be in pack mode again, my sister and I owning Toyota RAV4s (hers of the previous generation).

My wife, on the other hand, has been a Ford loyalist for four cars now, having purchased three generations of Explorers and now a Ford Edge. I like the Edge (even though it seems a bit wide) and would consider a Ford product in the future -- especially if the company can avoid the trap of government control experienced by Chrysler and General Motors.

Given the 50-year rise of foreign brands and decline of domestic car companies, I have to conclude that the nature of the product counts more than brand name for most American buyers.

On the other hand -- call it slothfulness, inertia or "brand loyalty" -- I've been using the same canned soup, underwear and catsup brands all my life.

So I dunno. What about you?



posted by Donald at April 28, 2009


I haven't really bought enough new cars to have developed much of a brand loyalty. That being said, I do like my Subaru, that I bought in 2005, and when it comes time to get another car I'll certainly consider another Subaru.

As for other brand loyalties, I have a few:

- Marcal paper products (inexpensive and surprisingly good quality)

- Glad Force-Flex trash bags (they almost never tear or burst)

- New Balance athletic shoes (always fit well and very durable)

- Axe shower gel (cheesy ads to be sure, but I like the bright colors and pleasant scents)

- Lee jeans (more a case of not liking Levis, which never seem to fit me right even when they're my size)

- Arrow shirts (a variety of bright colors (yes, I'm into bright colors), and more durable than most other brands)

- Kashi cereals (so much better than mass-market brands there's just no comparison).

Posted by: Peter on April 28, 2009 2:32 PM

Fun musings about brands and loyalaties. I remember the days of "Ford people" and "Chevy people" -- my family were definitely Chevy people. I was too young (and dumb) to know what it meant to be a Ford person or a Chevy person, but I definitely knew who was one and who was the other. Why it mattered to anyone ... Well, you've done a better job of explaining it than anyone else I've run across.

I wonder too if brand loyalties aren't what they once were. Too many brands, for one thing, plus many of the brandmasters have diluted their brands (out looking for toothpaste the other day, I ran into what must have been 15 different varieties of Crest -- what does "Crest" mean if if comes in 15 different flavors and configurations?). On the other hand ... I dunno, kids and rapper types seem to have very strong opinions about fashion brand names, as do competitive suburban moms. As a NYC person I have little to do with modern cars, so I'm often surprised when I visit the rest of the country how strongly some people care about brands and models -- I'm happy enough with a Taurus (dependable, easy to drive, comfy), but many people seem to NEED a Lexus or a Hummer or something.

And then there's Mac vs. PC ...

Hmm, some other brands that mean something to me: Niman Ranch (good quality meats), Whole Foods (ridiculous prices but they carry some things I want), Trader Joe's (brilliant retail), Squarespace (great online website-building service), Gap (cheap basic clothes), Kodak (wish 'em well, since they're the major employer back in my part of the world) ... Google I'm ambivalent about.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 29, 2009 10:14 AM

About 30 years ago, there was a push for "generic" products. In many supermarkets, there were unbranded products for just about everything and they were priced much cheaper than the brand-names. I used to buy six-packs of white cans labeled simply "Beer". It wasn't bad and I kinda liked the whole cartoon look to it.

Posted by: Bill on April 29, 2009 2:14 PM

I always took pride in driving a Camry. Giving the finger to style, class, and the romance of the road. Kind of like saying, you guys can look cool, I'll get a car that lasts 200,000 miles. Also nice to support a country full of nerds.

I enjoyed the irony of wearing jeans from Brooks Brothers.

That's about it honestly. I didn't like the pretension of the Mac ads (the Dalai Lama and John Lennon prefer this brand of computer? Who cares?) but my continued purchase of PCs had more to do with practicality (and my lack of desire to go to the trouble of learning Linux) than anything else.

Posted by: SFG on April 30, 2009 8:17 PM

In 1946 my father told me that Mr. Ford was the last man alive with his name on his car. We had a 1938 Ford V 8 Delux and I still marvel at how quiet and smooth it was compared to others. The 38 was one of the few cars made where the Ford Motor Company made all the components used on the the car including light bulbs, glass, tires and even the batteries. I recall the day in april of 47 when I heard on the radio the Mr. Ford had died.

When I bought my first new vehicle it was a GM product and I continued to drive GM's for many years and each year. I became more dissatisified.In that I drive approximately 50 thousand miles a year I found my GM vehicles would start to fail at about 60 thousand hard miles. In 1987, 91,and 92 I had the same power steering failure on all three models and GM failed to honor the warantee.

It was then that I bought my first Ford a 95 Ford Contour and 02 Sable have given me over 200.000 trouble free The Countour went a total of 400 thousand miles without major work!!!As a machine tool builder I can testify to the fact that Ford puts great effort in purchasing machinery that makes things to close specifications....Needless to say I am a Ford Fan because of the quality I get when I own one!!! I love my 29 Ford Model A pick up truck too!!! I have been watching for 29 Chevys or Dodge Trucks on the Road and only see Fords..... There are approximately 35000 Model A's on the road today which is more than Chevy and Dodge made during those years!!!! Oh yes I have yet to see any old Toyodas on the road!!!!!

Posted by: The Lost Pointer on May 9, 2009 10:57 AM

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