Mention Jackie Robinson, and I think about the power of brand loyalty. Bear with me.
As depicted in the Robinson bio-pic 42, the blatant discrimination of the pre-civil rights era isn’t just shocking, it’s baffling. We ask, how could people have been so prejudiced?
And I answer, we are born that way.
Babies recognize faces within days of birth. They are hard-wired to prefer people who look like them. Back when we lived in competitive, nomadic tribes, the ability to distinguish “us” from “them”—i.e., prejudice—was a critical survival trait. Unfortunately, the end of hunter-gatherer societies didn’t bring the end of prejudice, because our DNA didn’t get the memo. Humanity has never been free of “us vs. them” conflict.
But racism is just the most extreme and horrifying manifestation of our human preference for the familiar. We practice prejudice every day—choosing the familiar over the unfamiliar, sometimes beyond all logic or reason.
Why else do we identify with teams? We wear their colors and recognize other fans as members of the same tribe. Our loyalty remains constant even as players come and go—like Jerry Seinfeld says, we’re “rooting for the clothes.”
Why else do people prefer hearing the same music over and over again on classic rock radio?
And how else to explain brand loyalty? There are Coke and Pepsi people. Chevy and Ford people. Android and iPhone people. Loyalists will argue their brands’ merits ‘til doomsday, but how many actually make careful, objective assessments before choosing them?
(Of course, ketchup is different. No one will ever convince me any brand or generic tastes as good as Heinz. Don’t even get me started.)
A few years back, people picketed on State Street to protest Marshall Field’s becoming Macy’s. At the time I remember thinking, sheesh, get a life. But why did the name of the freaking store mean so much to people? Part of it was familiarity—I’ll miss those wonderful green bags!—and part of it was the whole Chicago-New York thing. (Talk about tribal loyalty!)
Brand loyalty connects us to the familiarity our brains are hard-wired to seek. We feel safer wiithin the “tribes” loyal to the same brand, and changing that loyalty is every bit as challenging as changing a bigot’s mind about race.
Because brand loyalty is prejudice, and prejudice is human nature.