business news in context, analysis with attitude

Now available on iTunes…

To hear Kevin Coupe’s weekly radio commentary, click on the “MNB Radio” icon on the left hand side of the home page, or just go to:

Hi, I’m Kevin Coupe and this is MorningNewsBeat Radio, available on iTunes and brought to you this week by Webstop, experts in the art of retail website design. I’m reporting this morning from Lake Okoboji, Iowa, where Michael Sansolo and I are getting ready to give the first of two speeches to the Iowa Grocery Industry Association.

I’m not sure what’s going on, but stories and studies about the relationship between branding and loyalty seem to be popping up everywhere…

Yesterday, we had a story about a new study by the Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) suggesting that men are more likely than women to buy brand name products, particularly at the grocery store, and that boomer men seem to be less affected by recession anxieties than women. As I said yesterday, the first part doesn’t surprise me but the second part does…especially because there have been a ton of reports saying that a lot more men are losing their jobs than women in this economic downturn.

Now, I see a piece in the New York Times saying that the Journal of Marketing reports that there are some key differences between male and female brand loyalty. Women, it seems, are more loyal to individual service providers, while men tend to be more institutionally loyal. My personal experience is not entirely in synch with these findings. I certainly am institutionally loyal to companies like Apple; my brother, who seems to have an instinctive distrust of what he views of the cult of Apple, says I would buy an iTurd if the company put one on the market. (I’m not sure he’s right about that, but I do know one thing – if Apple did make an iTurd, it would look better and smell better than any other turds on the market.)

But I also think that this isn’t always the case. Call it laziness or call it being a creature of habit, but the same guy has been cutting my hair for 20 years, and if he were to change shops, I’m following him. (In fact, I’ve already decided that when he retires, I’m going to a crew cut, because I don't want to go through the process of breaking in a new barber.) I’ve also been going to the same doctor for more than two decades, and I’m following her wherever she goes. I don't think I feel the same way about my favorite bartenders, though it’s never been tested – the ones who qualify have all worked in the same places for years.

I asked Michael Sansolo what his feeling was about this, and he agrees that it depends on the circumstance. He’s followed barbers from shop to shop, but he said that the greatest case of institutional loyalty that he could think of had to do with Tom Seaver and the New York Mets – he was an enormous Seaver fan growing up and when the Mets traded the pitcher, he was apoplectic…but he remained primarily a Mets fan, not a Seaver fan.

I also saw another study the other day, this one conducted by Catalina Marketing, that said that brand loyalty is weakening in general – that “less than half of consumers that made 70 percent or more of their category purchases with a single brand in 2007 maintained a similar level of loyalty in 2008.”

This makes sense, especially because the onslaught of the recession and the emergence of private label products has increased the likelihood that consumers will switch from one brand to another – depending, of course, on factors such as price and the specific item. For some families, I’d guess, brand loyalty will be more important in the soft drink category than the laundry detergent category…and for other families, the priorities will be at polar opposites.

The common thread here, it seems to me, is that more than ever, shoppers are taking the notion of choice seriously, and they are making situational decisions in a wide variety of circumstances. It is there when they choose one store over another, or one product instead of another. They are establishing situational priorities when they choose organics in one category and traditional products in another. And they are invoking their primacy when they put institutions ahead of service providers or vice versa, and make choices about baseball teams, doctors, barbers and bartenders.

In every case, the operational phrase is, “it depends.” It depends on a wide variety of factors, many of which retailers and manufacturers – or institutions and service providers – cannot control.

But there are things that the consumer does not control, where we can assert ourselves. And that’s how good we are at our jobs…how we define and implement our differential advantages.

You see, in a lot of ways that’s what’s missing from all these studies, valuable as they may be. They assume a level playing field…but a level playing field is the retailer’s and manufacturer’s worst nightmare, and the recession has made it even more so because it seems to have freed many consumers up from old habits and assumptions that drove their behavior. They’ve been liberated.

We can either be victims or victors in this liberation. Personally, I’d rather be the latter. I think we all need to take advantage of the moment and declare our own liberation from old mindsets, habits, processes and priorities. We, also, can make choices … and the most important one we can make has to do with being so effective in our products and services, so clearly defined as offering specific shoppers specific differential advantage, that it provides a clear narrative for the way we do business and the way we are perceived.

Let me make a suggestion for how to achieve this.

While on vacation last week, I read a fascinating book entitled Not Quite What I Was Planning.” The impetus for the book was the fact that many years ago, Ernest Hemingway was asked if he could write a short story with a clear narrative in just six words. And he did. The six words were these:

“Baby shoes for sale. Never used.”

I’m still blown away by that use of language. It is heartbreaking in its clarity and simplicity. I write more than 3,000 words every day, and I don't even come close to that … but of course, that’s why he’s Hemmingway and I’m just the Content Guy.

Anyway, the book I read is a compilation of six word stories and autobiographies created by a wide range of people, both famous and obscure. It is a fascinating exercise, and I recommend you either buy the book or download it to your Kindle, like I did. And then think about yourself and your business, and the qualities that define you…and see if you can come up with six words that provide a simple, clear and differentiated narrative.

Then, all you have to do is live up to the promise and the premise.

For MorningNewsBeat Radio, I’m Kevin Coupe.

Oh, by the way…I have to admit here that I’ve spent a lot of time wracking my brain to come up with six words to define myself and my business. I still haven’t worked out the personal one yet, but oddly enough I actually found the six words to describe my business staring me in the face – they’ve been at the top of this website since the first day we posted: “News In Context, Analysis with Attitude.”

They ain’t Hemingway, but they’re not bad.
KC's View: