The Irrationality of Brand Loyalty
“We’re consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don’t concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy’s name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra…
The things you own end up owning you.”
Tyler Durden – Fight Club
America is not a melting pot, but a Balkanized country. The American dish is comprised of disparate ingredients that contrast each other as often as they complement each other. We don’t really have a “national character” the way other homogenous nations do, since we are a nation of immigrants. Nevertheless, we individual Americans remain connected to one another; we are divided by race, religion, creed and socio-economic class, but we are bound together by markets. We must interact with people of dissimilar backgrounds because we inherently know, even if oftentimes rhetoric does not match the reality, that an individual is better off when he/she works to produce and consume services and commodities. Engaging in commerce is to the mutual benefit of anyone involved, and to that end marketing and branding has arisen as a gigantic industry in and of itself.
James Heaton writes:
“Branding should both precede and underlie any marketing effort. Branding is not push, but pull. Branding is the expression of the essential truth or value of an organization, product, or service. It is communication of characteristics, values, and attributes that clarify what this particular brand is and is not.”
Branding is a magnet designed to attract consumers to buy and keep buying its product, based on the consumer having confidence that they will enjoy the product being marketed to them. Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Honda Motor Company are examples of companies with great branding strategies. They have managed to attain and keep their market shares by coupling products consumers are familiar with and have confidence in with attractive marketing strategies.
The problem with branding is all too often the product is being misrepresented and the consumer gets fleeced, or willingly chooses a shoddy commodity out of blind allegiance to the brand. Here are several examples of this mindless buffoonery.
OF MICE AND WOMEN
I refuse to see the Ghostbusters remake for a few reasons. If it’s on TV after it departs theaters I might DVR it, but I’m not going to plunk down $15 to see it in the theater. The trailer did not recommend it well to me; it was just a bunch of hackneyed jokes. Sequels, prequels, remakes and reboots are hit or miss, so though I like the 1984 original, I don’t like it so much that I need to see its remake, especially since Ghostbusters 2 was only so-so. I’m not a Ghostbusters fanboy. Despite its cleverness and great cast, it’s not the end all and be all of comedies; it’s not the best work of anybody involved, it doesn’t deserve a reputation as some brilliant comedy, so why the desire to emulate it? Ghostbusters is not so amazing that it would be a travesty if today’s generation did not have their own version of it.
Of fans of the original Ghostbusters who are upset that a remake will be appearing in theaters, Jesse Hassenger writes in “Ghostbusters, Frozen, and the Strange Entitlement of Fan Culture”:
“For a lot of observers, it looks like a vocal group of male fans throwing fits because this Ghostbusters will star four funny women instead of four funny men. For Rolfe and others, it’s the “fan” part of that equation, rather than the “male” part, that inspires such passionate outrage. As Rolfe explains in his video, he is a huge fan of the original Ghostbusters movie. The idea that it would be remade and/or rebooted, especially without heavy involvement from the original cast and filmmakers, bothers him as a fan—not, it’s implied, as a man.
This idea—that it’s good taste and faithful fandom, not sexism, that fuels backlash against an unreleased, as-yet-unseen movie based on nothing more than a trailer—has been capably refuted elsewhere. What interests me about Rolfe’s response is the way it reflects modern fan culture, and what might be dubbed the fanification of everything…”
The complaint that if you don’t want to see the remake you are sexist, (or, bizarrely, it somehow indicates you will vote for Trump, still trying to figure that one out) exists primarily because the movie is a facsimile of the original, but with a female cast, and it is promoted, whether overtly or implicitly, as such. The sexism argument is like that scene in Inception where Arthur tells Seito “Don’t think about elephants. What are you thinking about?” and Seito answers “Elephants.” The sexism exists because the filmmakers and defenders of a film that has not even been screened yet have inserted it into the public conscious.
The defenders of the Ghostbusters remake have it backwards: it is the filmmakers who are being sexist because they are positing a scenario where only one sex is capable of performing an action, that only a group of women could possibly save New York City from an infestation of ghosts, and yes, you could make the same exact argument about the original… but you would be glossing over what made people enjoy the original in the first place: the interplay and relationships that existed between the characters, and by definition the actors, and audiences had confidence that they’d enjoy Ghostbusters because they enjoyed the prior works of Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd and Harold Ramis (R.I.P.): Caddyshack, Stripes & Saturday Night Live.
Later in his piece, Hassenger writes, “The entirely valid reasons for wanting Elsa or another Disney princess to be confirmed as gay are outlined in Caroline Siede’s excellent essay.” Hassenger’s biases are on clear display here: fans of the original Ghostbusters who don’t want to see the remake are laboring under the malice of sexism, but if you are a fan of Frozen, you are correct in asking for a girlfriend to be written for Elsa. This is an odd hypocrisy given that the premise of his article is that fans are out of bounds when they demand that additional installments of existing franchises conform to their expectations.
Essentially, Hassenger’s argument in part is that consumers should not be wary of a product that they know is different from the one they have previously enjoyed but that is branded as the same product, and his assertion that a fan is outside his bounds for complaining when a movie doesn’t conform to his expectations is moronic. The marketing for remakes revolves around nostalgia, and the marketing for comic book movies enjoys an existing fan base. Movies that rely on existing fan bases had better deliver on these expectations; if they don’t they are just guilty of emotional manipulation. The trend of sequels and remakes and reboots usually conform to the law of diminishing returns. “Hey, you like Pepsi, you will also like Crystal Pepsi!” Why? Why would I like something just because it shares a name with something I do like? Why should a person pay money for a product wherein its only selling point is passing itself off as being similar to its predecessor? If you’re telling me I will like something because you say it’s similar enough to something else I liked yet it’s different, then you are attempting to sell me a shoddy product. You are essentially just reminding me to go watch the original. How does that recommend your new variation to me?
Everyone should be leery of promotion by condescension. How many times do you expect a consumer to be burned when he buys a product that he is told is just as good as the original, though it’s been changed? How do we know the Ghostbusters nerd didn’t also see Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, Star Trek reboots, Spiderman reboots, Star Wars prequels and The Force Awakens, etc. and realized he doesn’t want to pay good money for something that the odds strongly say will be a letdown? If the people who star and produced the new Ghostbusters movie really had a great idea that the masses would love because it is a great product, they would have made that movie. Instead, they are trading on the reputation of a movie from 32 years ago.
“Marketing may contribute to a brand, but the brand is bigger than any particular marketing effort. The brand is what remains after the marketing has swept through the room. It’s what sticks in your mind associated with a product, service, or organization—whether or not, at that particular moment, you bought or did not buy.
The brand is ultimately what determines if you will become a loyal customer or not. The marketing may convince you to buy a particular Toyota, and maybe it’s the first foreign car you ever owned, but it is the brand that will determine if you will only buy Toyotas for the rest of your life.”
What the remake is positing is that you know and love the male Ghostbusters cast, some of whom are Saturday Night Live alums and have starred in your favorite comedies from the 1970s and 80s, therefore you’ll like this female Ghostbusters cast, some of whom are SNL alums and have starred in popular comedies from the recent past. The current iteration of Ghostbusters is trading on the brand reputation of its original lineup.
This Ghostbusters nonsense is a microcosm for how movies are marketed to the public. The majority of contemporary Hollywood blockbusters rely on the dollars of fanboys to turn a profit. Franchises for comic books, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers, Star Trek, Star Wars, etc., exist because they have built in audiences. They have a base, just like political parties (more on that in a moment). The producers of these movies know existing fans of these properties will turn out in droves to see these movies, despite online chatter of reshoots, script problems and other behind the scenes drama that should scare audiences away due to wariness of the quality of the products. I am a Star Wars nerd…but I hate the work of J.J. Abrams (except for Mission Impossible III). He is a hack of the highest order; but I saw The Force Awakens anyway.
ANY GIVEN SUNDAY
A good example of the irrationality of brand loyalty can be applied to Hollywood actors. Many, many movie-goers will watch a movie just because their favorite actor is in it, despite having no interest in the topic the movie tackles; I am one of those movie-goers. I will watch anything Al Pacino is in. Pacino is a great example of personal branding because based on the era of his career you know what you’re going to get, as his characterizations change every 15 years or so. Throughout the 1970s he played his characters as shy, demurring and slightly befuddled. From Scarface to the late 1990s he morphed into Yell Pacino. For the past 15 years he’s played many characters suffering with ennui and has even dabbled in self-parody. He’s appeared or starred in over 50 movies, but by my lights, 10 of them can be considered good to great. He’s starred in some of my favorite movies and in several absolute classics. But for every great one, there are 4 mediocre to downright stinkers. I can tell beforehand if the latest Pacino flick is going to be good or bad, but I watch it anyway even though the odds are weighed more heavily that it’ll be a disappointment.
Any rational consumer who was satisfied with the product only 20% of the time should not be a consumer of that product for long, but I am not a rational consumer, at least when it comes to Al Pacino movies.
Brand loyalty to sports teams is irrational if the team you like is upside down in its win/loss record and/or you don’t live within general proximity of that team. There are more intangible reasons why a fan may stick with his team(s), but how long can you reasonably expect to remain a fan if you cannot attend or watch games because you don’t live within its local market, and if the team(s) you favor consistently underperform? I grew up in South Florida when Dan Marino was the quarterback for the Miami Dolphins. I was a big fan of the Dolphins then, and remain one to this day, though except for a few years in college in Orlando, I haven’t lived in Florida since 1994. The Dolphins haven’t made it deep into the postseason for over 20 years, and for over 15 years if they make a .500 record or better, it’s considered a reason to celebrate. I lived in Vermont for many years and most of my friends were New England Patriots fans. I totally could have jumped ship and become a Patriots fan, and while I respect their accomplishments and their organization, whenever I considered dropping the Dolphins in favor of the Patriots, I always got an icky feeling.
As a consumer, I should not base my preferences for products on icky feelings, but I do.
INVESTING IN R & D
Speaking of icky feelings, the Libertarian Party has settled on Gary Johnson as its nominee.
The vast majority of American voters are not libertarians, despite all the articles that pop up online announcing the latest “libertarian movement,” whenever a libertarian pops up in the news or some issue heretofore regulated by the government enjoys some liberalization, and most non-libertarians, and many libertarians, view the Libertarian Party as one comprised of sexual deviants, degenerates, celebritarians, and they are not wrong. The Libertarian Party, and by extension, Gary Johnson, suffer from poor public reaction to its brand.
Here’s how you know the Libertarian Party has a branding problem: In 1994, Gary Johnson ran as a Republican and won ~233,000 votes, then ~272,000 votes in 1998, to win the governorship of New Mexico. In 2012 Johnson ran as the Libertarian Party candidate for president, and won only 27,337 votes in New Mexico. He retained only 10% of the vote in the state he was twice elected governor.
Reports of Johnson’s viability are greatly exaggerated.
The highest elected office a candidate from the LP has won is mayor. Yet, there are plenty of libertarians at the national level who have been elected and re-elected who run as Republicans.
Interest in Johnson and the Libertarian Party are due more to the fact that Trump and Clinton are so unlikable and there is so much dissatisfaction with the Democratic and GOP party establishment. It does not speak well of a product that it is favored only as a last resort to more popular products.
We are all aware of the importance of branding in politics. It is supposed to come from the political party they represent, either the letter R or D that follows their names everywhere they go like bad pennies. Unfortunately, in politics, the average American voter chooses a candidate based on his appearance and charisma. Policy proposals are a distant third. Those Rs and Ds accompany politicians’ and candidates’ names as a shorthand so the voter need not sully his eyes and clutter his mind with researching what a candidate proposes and how an office holder has actually voted.
Trump is an anomaly in that he has a personal brand, and a corporate brand. Sometimes they intertwine, working with and for each other, and sometimes not. In any event, they serve as cover to obscure the fact that he has no experience in government, his business record is less than stellar, and his past positions do not conform at all to the assumed ideology of the political party whose mantle he’s assumed. He certainly is not in the position he is in in the race to the White House because he is a student of policy and can boast a steady hand during national crises. His brand is literally his name, and everyone, whether they love him or loathe him, recognizes it.
There is no more valuable currency to modern politicians than name recognition, and there are no greater examples of the success of political campaigns based on this feature than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The Donald erroneously believes gold letters equal class, and Hillary is King Midas in reverse. But, what unites them is greater than what divides them: the power of name recognition. Name recognition is the modern politician’s paper currency, a light and rich denomination that does not weigh down his pockets like the heavy coin of policy.
If there is a better example than politicians and political parties not being on the same page regarding what they are selling, then I don’t know what it is. The whole point of claiming membership to a party is so that existing and potential voters can make a decision based on ease and convenience.
But, in practical application, all too often what a politician promises are not in line with what his party is selling. The brand is off. Political party does not dictate ideology. Donald Trump, by any rubric, would be considered a progressive liberal, and Hillary hews closer to neo-conservatism than to the democratic socialism peddled by Bernie Sanders that seems all the rage within the Democratic base.
I live in New Jersey, in Morris County. The MoCo is a red county for the most part… in an overwhelmingly blue state. The last time a Republican won The Garden State was George H.W. Bush in 1988, but since 1992 the Democrat has won the state in landslides, so forgive me if I maintain some cynicism regarding voting, though I am aware of some manner of obligation I have to myself to vote my conscience. So, though I am not partial to the product he is selling, the brand he has adopted turns me off, and he has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning, I will vote for Gary Johnson in November.
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