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Saturday, Nov 17, 2018
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Mullins: No Pepsi, Coke -- the brand loyalty phenomenon

Myself, I’m a Diet Coke guy, and I can’t even picture myself switching to Pepsi.

It’s almost pathological for me, part of my world view for some reason. Maybe you have the same rock-solid brand affinity for Pampers vs. Huggies, or Crest vs. Colgate.

This thought came to mind as I was totally geeking out and reading some social psychology research about why people will stick to certain beliefs, even if presented with facts that prove their preconceived notions were incorrect.

Turns out, we humans just don’t change our minds much, no matter how we like to think of ourselves as smart or rational or open-minded or even fair.

This issue crops up in everything from political party affiliation to beliefs about climate change or whether people pick Apple vs. Samsung phones. Case in point:, Brendan Nyhan, a professor of political science at Dartmouth who studies so-called “false belief” psychology.

Through a series of tests, he found people will stick to a belief in something, even when presented with evidence to the contrary, and sometimes there’s even a “backfire effect” in which people will consider such “correcting” evidence almost as an attack on them personally. What’s going on there?

The answer seems to be in our self-image. If, for instance, you ask someone if the sun goes around the Earth or the other way around, they might be wrong, and a friend might correct them. No big deal. But in the time of Galileo, it was a big deal. I’m not picking on religion here, but people could get burned at the stake.

The irony here is that acting on your core beliefs is one manifestation of what we call virtue or integrity.

The New Yorker recently did a great write-up on the topic and — not to get too political — researchers Kelly Garrett and Brian Weeks studied what happens when people are presented with correct and incorrect information about who has access to their medical records.

They found some people would change their minds when presented with the correct info. But if people had a predisposition before the question, they were more rock-solid in sticking to a belief, even if it was incorrect.

Other recent studies found people who read police reports would have a hard time shaking off beliefs about the race of individuals involved in a crime — even when the researchers basically said. “Whoops, someone filling out the police report accidentally mixed up the names and races. It was the other way around.”

As the New Yorker phrased it, “False beliefs, it turns out, have little to do with one’s stated political affiliations and far more to do with self-identity: What kind of person am I, and what kind of person do I want to be?”

I bring all this up in a business column because a bazillion dollars every year goes into the advertising world with the primary purpose of either reinforcing your affinity for brands or persuading you to try another one.

Geico vs. Liberty Mutual. Verizon vs. AT&T. Dannon vs. Yoplait. And if you look at nearly every ad, you’ll see the companies are trying to convince you that “you’re the kind of person who would buy this.” Not just that “our product is better,” but “if you want to be this kind of person, you need to buy this.”

Cadillac recently had a widely mocked TV ad where a guy explains that we Americans are go-getters who “make our own luck” and went to the moon and all that — so clearly we should all buy Cadillacs. Wha? Does that make Honda buyers lazy dorks because they buy Hondas? A car is a piece of machinery that performs a task. Must we make them expressions of our self-image? Yup, apparently so.

Apple banks on the concept that “Apple people” are the creative types. Yet the HTC phone maker has a TV campaign going where actor Gary Oldman sternly asks you to think for yourself when picking a phone.

Often when I write an article about Publix, a reader will send me a note saying they love, love, love Publix, not just because of the store itself, but because of the Jenkins family who founded the store, and the societal values that family supported. Good luck winning over that person, Wal-Mart.

“Brand is more important that just identity or a logo,” said Tony Miller, chief executive of the Tampa brand and advertising firm Spark. “Brand now gets into a company’s purpose, its core values, and in today’s world, where consumers are far more informed and powerful, that becomes more relevant and meaningful. It’s harder for companies to fake that today, compared to years ago when they could just say something over and over and people might start to believe it.”

Brands like Crest or UPS or Starbucks, Miller said, better have core identities that match their customers’ self-identities, or a company is just one viral video away from a scandal.

Remember Chick-fil-A’s PR blowup after its founder made comments about same-sex marriage? I went to the Chick-fil-A near downtown Tampa to interview customers the next day, and the place was packed with people who purposely went there for lunch to support the company, while other people were outside protesting against it.

That’s a lot of psycho/political baggage for a piece of fried chicken.

So, are you a person who thinks for yourself? Or would you be willing to switch from Diet Coke to Pepsi. Me? No way. I’m a Diet Coke guy.

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