“A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person. You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well.”

                                                                                Jeff Bezos

A rainy morning sometimes moves one toward the pensive. So did my mood begin to turn this day when I took the elevator down to the lobby to go out buy a few groceries, after being away from the city for a few weeks. The grocery store is only two blocks away but it was pouring rain and I was sans umbrella.

I had slept in after arriving back late the night before and hadn’t turned on the computer for the news and weather or even glanced out a window before I descended to the street. One of my neighbours, whom I know only slightly, was speaking on his cell phone in the lobby, looking out at the downpour. We nodded to each other before I headed back upstairs for my brolly.

When I got back downstairs several minutes later, he was still there. The initial cloudburst had abated somewhat and had settled down to a steady drizzle. He had called a taxi and it hadn’t yet arrived as rain tends to affect supply and demand in a positive way for drivers and a negative way for riders. So as we stood there briefly in the lobby, watching out the front door as vehicles swished by on the street and pedestrians with their umbrellas avoided their splashes and hopped around puddles pooling on the sidewalk, my neighbour and I got into a short conversation.

Such are the shared banalities of idle conversation everywhere, but in them are the seeds of societal trends.

My neighbour: (pointing to my still-folded brolly) “A good day for umbrellas and cabs.”

Me: “Agreed. It’s one of those.” (pointing out the door at the dingy wet grayness) “So you’re still waiting for your ride then?”

Him: (shrugging) “The cabs always take longer to come when it rains.”

Me: “No silver lining to be found in those clouds then, if you’ll pardon the cliché.”

Him: “If we are talking clichés, more like… when it rains, it pours.”

Such are the shared banalities of idle conversation everywhere, but in them are the seeds of societal trends. What he said started me thinking about the many factors that influence customer loyalty.

My neighbor walks using a crutch; a result (I think) of some debilitating long-term physical condition and although I’ve seen him out and walking about in fair weather I suspect that he uses taxicabs quite a bit to go any distance beyond the immediate neighbourhood. He however seemed reconciled to this wait. I was curious therefore if he had ever used one of the alternative ride services that now seem to be ubiquitous, thinking that perhaps one of their cars might arrive sooner than a taxi, when summoned under these conditions.

The rain had started up heavier again and I lingered, not anxious to step out into the deluge even with the cover of my umbrella. Another minute or so ticked by in comfortable silence as we gazed out at the wet, and still no cab arrived. I asked him if he had ever tried Uber.

he was willing to wait a bit longer and even pay extra because of reasons that he deemed important enough to deliberately accept these inconveniences.

My neighbor: “No. No, I’ve thought about it but I’ve been using BlueLine since I was a kid and I don’t want to switch just because they might be cheaper. Especially if these other people don’t have to pay for licenses or their fair share of taxes.”

With this food for thought lodged in my mind, I trundled off in the rain to the grocery store to get a few things to restock my refrigerator. As I reached the corner of our street at the traffic light, I saw a BlueLine cab turn up toward where my neighbor was still waiting for his ride. Would another vehicle summoned with a rideshare application have arrived sooner? Possibly, but he had been firm in his conviction that he was willing to wait a bit longer and even pay extra because of reasons that he deemed important enough to deliberately accept these inconveniences.

I was still pondering this unusual display of consumer loyalty when I happened upon a shelf of Heinz ketchups at the grocery store.

When an old, established company introduces a new product into its branded product line, it should always consider how that item will affect its core customer base.

Here I was faced with another contradiction; one that, again, seemed to veer away from conventional marketing wisdom and practices. When an old, established company introduces a new product into its branded product line, it should always consider how that item will affect its core customer base. That seemed to be ignored with this Heinz ketchup display.

H.J. Heinz is one of the most iconic food brands in North America. The original company is more than 140 years old and its branded food products are marketed in more than 200 countries on six continents. Heinz ketchup is the best-selling ketchup in the United States with a market share of more than 50%.

In this case however, (in my opinion) someone seems to have fumbled the ball, at least in the Canadian consumer market for ketchup. In the product labeling of two of the three different varieties of Heinz ketchup that I saw available on the grocery store shelves, the label designers had omitted the “57 varieties” slogan that has been used on Heinz product labels for more than a hundred years. I was left wondering; why?

Was this a deliberate decision or an error of omission? It seemed to fly in the face of common sense when it came to sustaining the product’s image within the brand’s core customer base.

Why abandon such a well-established slogan-cum-icon, when, these days, companies struggle harder than ever to maintain brand loyalty?

The “57 varieties” slogan worked into the label design on a Heinz ketchup bottle has been, arguably, a highly significant factor in maintaining the Heinz brand image among its core customer base. It had even been established as an urban legend: that if one tapped the ketchup bottle at exactly the “57” mark on the label, the ketchup would come out of the bottle easily (supposedly this only works on the traditional glass bottle, but the value of urban legend in consumer loyalty is incalculable). At one time, supposedly more than ten percent of the population subscribed to this idea. Why abandon such a well-established slogan-cum-icon, when, these days, companies struggle harder than ever to maintain brand loyalty?

More than likely, in this case the decision (or omission) had to do with the upset in middle management following the merger of H.J. Heinz with Kraft Foods two years ago that was orchestrated by Berkshire Hathaway. There is always a period of management instability following a corporate merger where small (but important) details fall through the cracks. The dropping of the “57 varieties” slogan from the Heinz ketchup labels was possibly an oversight in the scramble to get a bunch of new products out into a highly-competitive market. The slogan may well have been sacrificed, without much thought, to balance the visual elements of the label. A hundred years of goodwill casually tossed out the window at the whim of a designer? It happens.

Customer loyalty is not easily won and a flashy new product label is not a panacea to halt a declining market share.

Corporate decision-makers usually scoff at anecdotal evidence when planning changes to their product lines, but solid and lasting marketing decisions are often much more complex than simply relying on large-scale trend-metrics. Customer loyalty is not easily won and a flashy new product label is not a panacea to bolster a market share that may be declining for unrelated reasons.

Companies sometimes take their core customer base for granted, at their peril. Two good examples of this were the “New Coke” marketing fiasco of the 1980s and the less-publicized case of the  J.C. Penney Company that alienated its long-loyal customer base of moneyed clientele beginning about 2010, by dropping many of its existing staid but established and profitable clothing lines to go chasing off after short-lived fashion trends. In both cases corporate leadership tossed the baby out with the bath water. And both companies suffered serious financial consequences because of those decisions.

There are lessons to be learned in marketing by getting past the broad superficialities of trends and considering human behaviour at the elemental level. There are many factors that influence customer loyalty, some that fly in the face of the usual assumptions. One is that given a choice of comparable products or services, people won’t always act in pure self-interest, as was the case with my neighbour when he eschewed Uber for a traditional taxi service.  Secondly, core customer behaviour may be tied to minutiae that are not measurable by quantifiable means and long-established product slogans and icons should not be taken for granted.  REG