Last week I went to the supermarket to buy new blades for my razor, only to find that the system had been replaced with a new, “better” version, with which my old handle was incompatible. As it happened, the old system was the best I had ever found. I’ve never been able to get a shave as smooth as I would like, but these razors got close, without the inconvenience of shredding my face in the process. To find it discontinued was therefore somewhat of a disappointment. After several instances of finding a good system only for it to be discontinued six months or a year later, I got fed up and have opted for what seems to be a more economical approach (although I worry about the ecological aspect) of buying disposable razors instead – an option that also lets me experiment a bit to find which current design works best for me.
All of which is just to explain why I have been thinking about concepts of “brand loyalty” and “product loyalty” recently.
I am not wholly unadventurous, but I certainly tend towards sticking with what I know – a slight element of risk-averseness informs many of my decisions (by one way of thinking, not enough of them, by another way of thinking, too many). One consequence of this is that, if I find a product that works for me and fulfils the functions in a satisfactory or better manner, then I am disinclined to shift unless forced to do so (for instance, if the product stops being made). However, I feel no attachment to particular businesses or brands, unless there is some particular quality to their business model (i.e. ethical standards).
What bothers me most is something that I have seen happen far too often with products or service models. The situation is something like this:
Business A and business B are providing services in a similar area. Business A uses an approach ‘a’, while business B uses a different approach, ‘b’. Business A, for whatever reason, has more customers than business B. Busines B looks at this and decides that, presumably in order to attract more customers, they should change some aspects of their service model from ‘b’ to ‘a’.
At which point, if I’m a customer of B, I have generally stopped using their service and switched to A, or (if it exists, and I like its model better) C. Sometimes, I just give up on using that sort of service altogether because I’d rather not bother than use something I’m not happy with (sometimes I can’t viably opt out, other times, I can and do).
The thing that I believe the “business B” types miss is that the reason they have attracted their customers is precisely because of the ways that they differ from business A. I vaguely remember seeing a documentary series about businesses making disastrous decisions to change their core product, and of course, Coca Cola was featured – when blind taste tests showed that Pepsi was slightly ahead, Coca COla changed the recipe to be more like Pepsi to try and take the lead. Instead of winning customers, they lost a whole lot of them and had to reinstate “Classic Coke”. Their loyal customers liked the original flavour, whereas those who preferred the Pepsi flavour just stuck with what they knew they liked already.
Similarly, if I choose service model ‘b’ over service model ‘a’, it’s because for me, personally, service model ‘b’ is better. Its difference from ‘a’ is why I chose B instead of A in the first place and when B tries to be more like A, I have no reason to stick with them.
Specifically, these are my issues with how social media sites have developed. Frequently, the very features that I have been attracted by are the first to be “improved” out of existence.
It’s also the way I feel about political parties at the moment. Back in the mid-1990s, the Conservative party had held power for around 15 years. As it happened, the mask was slipping: the Tories were out of step in policy, and more critically, had been hit by scandal after scandal. However, the Labour Party embarked on a massive rebranding exercise, called “New Labour”, borrowing from the techniques and rhetoric of Bill Clinton’s campaigns in the US. But the core of “New Labour” was essentially, “Let’s make our policies (our product) more like our competition.” But the basis of the Labour Party’s grassroots support – its “core customer base”, if you will, was attracted precisely by its difference from the Tories. As it happened, they won and kept new customers, largely because the Tories cocked up their own attempts at rebranding (and were still tainted by the memory of the scandals of the 1990s). Tony Blair’s ability to be a “face of the brand” also helped. When they lost the face and the Tories got their act together (by seeking to become more like the Blair brand…) there was nothing to keep the new customers, and nothing to win back the core customers (many of whom sought alternative providers – such as the “Respect” coalition or the Green Party).
Just as brands trying to manoeuvre their products to appeal to someone else’s customers ends up narrowing the range of choice for the consumer, and alienates the customers they already had, when political parties manoeuvre to become more like their opponents, it narrows the range of political debate and alienates those who advocate for other solutions. To some extent, this is the genius of UKIP’s approach: they’ve figured out how to build a distinctive brand in the marketplace that appeals to a group who feel otherwise marginalised.
I disagree vehemently with UKIP’s position, but they are doing something right. They are making a case for something different (I just think it’s the wrong kind of different). Nick Clegg failed miserably in the televised debates with Nigel Farage, because he did not respect that. Ed Miliband is struggling to rebrand the Labour Party, and in part I feel it’s because he hasn’t dared to widen the frame of reference enough.
Obviously, I can relate to that, since I like to stick with what I know. But so often, what I know works for me is “something different” from the perspective of others, so I end up making that case anyway, because I’m just arguing for what I need (or believe in).
Conclusion: I forget the exact quotation, but President Bartlet in The West Wing once said, “As a lifelong holder of minority opinions, I want there to be someone making my case.”