Saturday, July 24, 2010

Saturday Throwback: Food, Frugality, and Fighting Brand Loyalty

Every Saturday, we post a piece from the CHG Archives. This number is from February 2008. Those were the days, Edith.

I have a confession: cooking healthily and staying on budget remain constant struggles. Though I’m learning, and hope you’re enjoying the journey, I’m ultimately not an expert chef, dietician, or personal finance guru.

But I am a media professional. And I know a little bit about advertising. And I know that the brass ring of every ad agency in existence is brand loyalty. And I know that brand loyalty can cost a food shopper (you, me, us, etc.) a lot of cash.

Today’s article focuses on that phenomenon. What is brand loyalty? When does it start? Why is it less than great? How can it be tamed? You might find the piece a bit drier than most CHG posts (in which case, pace yourself by periodically checking into Cute Overload), but it could also be the most important one yet.

(Did that sound good? Yeah? Okay, cool. Let’s get started.)

What it is
Simply, brand loyalty occurs when a consumer uses a product or service over and over again, because A) it works for her, B) it’s habitual, and C) she’s hesitant to spend cash on the unfamiliar. For example, when I buy orange juice, it’s Tropicana, and it has been for as long as I can remember. My mom always bought it, and from what I recall, her mom did, too. I rarely purchase other brands, because it’s been imprinted on my brain (through personal experience and tons of advertising) that they won’t taste as good as Tropicana.

When it begins
One of the most eye-opening moments of my professional career occurred about five years ago, when I had a meeting in a room just used by employees of a kids television channel, whose target demographic is children between the ages of 4 and 11. One of their employees left a marketing presentation printout on the conference table. In it, kids (again, ages 4 to 11) were referred to as “consumers.” Yikes.

Like that company, many (if not most) corporations start building consumer brand loyalty from birth. (It would begin at conception if zygotes could read.) Advertisers spend billions of dollars each year to promote directly to toddlers and school-age children through magazines, television shows, movies, clothes, billboards, music, commercials, and … well, you name it. The earlier marketing begins, the more ingrained the product is, and the longer those kids will be customers.

In fact, the National Institute of Media and Family estimates that “Children as young as age three recognize brand logos, with brand loyalty influence starting at age two.” If anyone has a little girl obsessed with Disney Princesses (as many of my mom-friends do), you know what they’re talking about.

Why it costs you more
Once you become loyal to a brand, that company counts on your repeat business throughout the course of your lifetime. As a result, prices can be jacked up because it’s assumed you’ll continue to pay a premium out of allegiance. What’s more, you’ll ignore competing items, no matter what advantages they present. Wikipedia puts it best: “For example, if Joe has brand loyalty to Company A he will purchase Company A's products even if Company B's are cheaper and/or of a higher quality.”

Think of it this way: there are three types of oatmeal on sale - Quaker, McCann’s, and Generi-oats. They contain mostly the same ingredients, and are essentially the same shape, color and consistency. Quaker goes for $3 a box. McCann’s is $2 after a coupon. Generi-oats runs a mere $1.50. Since it’s habit and your dear ol’ Dad always did it, you buy Quaker without thinking twice. You’re down at least $1.50 because of brand loyalty.

Now, multiply that $1.50 by the number of items in your shopping cart. How much does brand loyalty cost you per trip? Per month? Per year?

What does this have to do with the “Healthy” part of “Cheap, Healthy, Good”?
Well, advertisers throw a LOT of resources into marketing processed food, meaning you have a better chance at becoming brand-loyal. Those products are generally less nutritious than whole foods like meats, produce, and dairy, which aren’t pushed as hard in commercials and print ads. So, not only do brand-name processed foods cost more, they can crowd fresher, healthier foods out of your shopping cart.

How to fight it
While advertising and some brand loyalty are nearly impossible to avoid, there are steps you can take to minimize their influence:

EVERYDAY LIFE: Flip off the TV. Mute commercials. Try to minimize advertising found around the home. Don’t prioritize brand names, especially in front of kids. Promote media literacy. Stress variety and try new things.

FOOD: Buy generic. Experiment with brands besides the ones you regularly use. Shop with coupons, which offer savings on a different brand each week. Use the circular, which varies discounts throughout the year. Cook from scratch. Purchase foods found around the perimeter of the supermarket. Cut back on brand-based cookbooks.

A caveat
You know what? Though they’re nearly twice the price, I find Ghirardelli chocolate chips tastier than Nestle. Inarguably, they make my cookies better. I’ve developed a brand loyalty to them. On the same note, I’m highly hesitant to switch my contact lens solution. Other products dry out my eyes, and I have an annoying habit of walking into sharp things when I can’t see.

There’s nothing wrong with brand loyalty if a product works for you, especially if you’ve tried the alternatives. It’s when that devotion is uninformed and automatic there can be an issue.

In the end
Brand loyalty isn’t catastrophic, and it won’t ruin any lives or hopes for the future (like say, smoking or riding the M Train naked). While it can be costly, both nutritionally and wallet…ally, knowing the facts and shopping smart is a stellar way of addressing concerns. If you’re interested in learning more, check out these resources:
  • provides a deeper explanation of brand loyalty.
  • For hardcore shopping statistics, there’s this article, and more from the Grocery Manufacturers of America.
  • For lots of somewhat frightening information on kids and advertising, check out the National Institute on Media and Family’s fact sheet.
(Photos courtesy of Global Package Gallery, The Wooden Porch, and Flickr member aqualilflower.)

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