How We Brainwash Ourselves Into Brand Loyalty


The great Irish writer and satirist Jonathan Swift once wrote: "It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of thing he was never reasoned into."

All of us have encountered individuals who are stubbornly and irrevocably committed to a belief that is, according to us, just plain wrong, not to mention illogical. And we've all found that trying to use reasoned arguments to change that person's mind has generally been a great way to end a friendship.

We like to believe that we are far more rational than that, and that our beliefs come from careful reasoning.

But some troubling scientific studies have recently indicated that we are, on the whole, masters at lying to ourselves about where our beliefs and ideas come from. This has enormous implications in our lives, especially when it comes to loyalty to an idea or belief system — or, in the case of finances, brand loyalty.

If you've ever waited 12 hours in line for the newest Apple gadget or slapped a "Friends don't let friends drive a Ford" sticker on the back of your truck, you might want to spend a little time thinking about why you believe your favorite brand is the best. Your loyalty might have less to do with excellent products and more to do with your brain's ability to rationalize. (See also: Psychology and Loans: The Strange Reasons Why You Make Bad Decisions)

Beliefs Come Before Reasoning

If you ask someone why they are an Apple fan, they will be able to give you plenty of plausible reasons for their love of the brand: great technology, ease of use, innovation, etc. But according to various studies, a rabid fan of Apple (the kind who names their son Mac and their daughter Apple) first formed their belief in the excellence of Apple products — and then searched for reasons to confirm that belief.

In point of fact, scientists have discovered that we as a species form beliefs prior to creating/learning/finding reasons for having this belief.

Several studies of patients with split-brains — individuals who have had the connections between the left and right hemisphere of their brains severed in order to relieve severe epilepsy — have shown that the brain will work to rationalize behavior that would otherwise not make sense. For instance, Michael Gazzaniga writes in "The Ethical Brain" about an experiment wherein one split-brain patient was presented the word walk to only one side of his brain:

[The patient] got up and started walking. When he was asked why he did this, the left brain (where language is stored and where the word walk was not presented) quickly created a reason for the action: "I wanted to go get a Coke."

As far as the left side of his brain understood it, the patient had absolutely no reason to go for a walk. So his brain provided him with a plausible, reasonable explanation for his jaunt, and the patient himself believed that was why he was on his feet.

In another study authored by Gazzaniga, split-brain patients were shown images so that each side of the brain only took in one set of images. The right hemisphere (which does not control language and speech) was shown a snowy scene, and the left hemisphere was shown a chicken leg. The patient was then asked to point to another picture that would relate to the scene. At that point, the patient would point to a chicken with their right hand (because the left brain, which controls the right side of the body, had seen the chicken leg), while the patient pointed to a snow shovel with their left hand. According to the study,

If you ask the patient why the left hand pointed to a shovel, the talking hemisphere does not know! But it quickly makes up an answer, such as, "Well, you have to clean up after those chickens."

Basically, what these studies have proven is that our sense of self will not allow us to simply not know why we do something. We need a reason for our actions, whether those actions are as simple as going for a walk or pointing to a picture, or as complex as driving the same brand of car for a lifetime. Our brains quickly come up with plausible explanations for our preferences, actions, and beliefs so as to maintain our sense of ourselves.

The Confirmation Bias Rears Its Ugly Head

So, the beginning of a preference comes down to our brains rationalizing a plausible, face-saving reason for our choice. But our brains don't stop there. From that point on, we are committed to our preference and will fight to hold onto it.

That's where the confirmation bias comes in. That is the cognitive quirk that makes us seek out information that confirms what we believe, and ignore the information that opposes it. Confirmation bias is generally found in emotionally charged issues, which is why politicians with opposing viewpoints can look at the exact same set of facts and come to completely different conclusions. This is exactly the issue that Jonathan Swift recognized in his quotation — confirmation bias makes it impossible to use reason to change someone's mind on an emotionally charged issue.

What's interesting is that brand loyalty does not seem like it should be particularly emotionally charged — and yet our confirmation biases will keep us coming back for more from the same brand.

For instance, I was an enormous fan of M. Night Shyamalan (who, granted, is not exactly a brand), when he first came out with "The Sixth Sense," "Unbreakable," and even "Signs." As his movies got progressively more terrible, I still found myself defending the director and actively trying to find things I enjoyed about his movies, even when I knew they were awful. And even though I am no longer rationalizing my original enthusiasm for the director, I will admit to still seeing every one of his movies as they come out. My initial loyalty was strong enough for me to continue to search for things to enjoy from Shyamalan's films.

What's particularly concerning about this example is that I hardly felt as loyal to Shyamalan's films in the beginning as I currently do to Apple computers and Honda cars.

We Love When Rationales Are Given to Us

Since our brains are already primed to create rational-sounding reasons for our preferences, advertisers work hard to give us reasons — which we are happy to use, since it requires less work on our part.

According to Douglas Van Praet, an expert in advertising, psychology, and neurobiology,

It is our unconscious tendency to respond to a rationale even if it appears to be irrational, accepting factual information that doesn't always really make sense…In a study…researchers approached people in the act of using copying machines and asked if they could cut into the line and make photocopies. The experimental subjects were given different reasons for the request ranging from the sensible to the seemingly senseless, such as "because I'm in a rush" and "because I need to make copies." The researchers found out that compliance was higher when they gave a reason, even if the reason didn't really make sense.

What this means for us is that marketers are able to help us choose their brand by giving us plausible-sounding reasons for doing so. These reasons can be anything from Cocoa Crispies supposedly supporting your child's immunity to Cascade dish detergent's "sheeting action" for virtually spotless dishes. It doesn't matter that these claims don't hold up to scrutiny. They sound just reasonable enough to satisfy our loyalty.

With a reason already built in to the advertisements for our favorite brands, we don't need to do any work to convince ourselves to continue to buy them.

Dealing With Brand Loyalty

While your deeply-held beliefs on social, political, and religious issues may not be anything you care to change, your brand loyalty could be leading you financially astray. This is why it's a good idea to regularly and consistently challenge yourself. If you really think about it, why do you love your Honda so deeply? If it's because it has truly been reliable and easy to maintain, then mazel tov — it has probably earned your loyalty.

But if you have ignored company missteps over the years and found you enjoyed driving a rental Buick on vacation more than your daily drive, then perhaps its time to revisit your emotional attachment to the brand.

With smaller-ticket items, challenging your brand loyalty can be fairly simple. Just try buying different brands of soap, cereal, toothpaste, etc. But with the larger items that tend to engender more loyalty — like cars and computers — you will have to do a little more work to determine if you really do love your brand as much as you think you do. You will have to seek out the negative information about your favored brand and force yourself to think about those negatives when you'd rather ignore them.

Doing all of this might not be easy — but it is the reasonable way to make sure you're not wasting your money.

Jonathan Swift would definitely approve.

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Guest's picture

As a fellow M. Night Shyamalan sufferer, for me it has nothing to do with brand loyalty but with the fact that the first 45 minutes of every movies is always GREAT, and I'm hoping he doesn't fall down in the reveal/twist. :) Sure, he usually does, but the awesomeness of the first 45 minutes make it worth the risk, along with the possibility that, for once, he'll pull another Sixth Sense and not another The Village.

As far as brand loyalty, I'm loyal just as long as the brand delivers to my expectations and no other brand clearly delivers better. Once it does, I'm out of there. Dell doesn't know it yet, but they've lost me, a 10-year customer, to Lenovo this year.

Guest's picture

I learned this weekend that the reason my grandfather, almost 80, drives a Ford minivan with 180,000 miles is not because he can't afford a new van but that Ford no longer makes minivans. He will not consider anything from another brand, nor even a different car class! Brand loyalty is indeed a strange thing.

Guest's picture

Great post. Being a victim of brand loyalty is a reality for all of us and worthy of regular self-examination. I know I can improve in this area of my life and I love the subject of money, saving, and debt reduction!

Guest's picture

Maybe not so strange. I have been using Colgate Regular (Cavity Protection) paste for over 30 years. I had tried the gels, tartar control, whitening, etc as they came out over the years but always returned to the classic. I can not use anything else, as it makes me gag. No other brands or formulas are tolerable. This is beyond loyalty.

Guest's picture

I'm more likely to stay with the brand as long as I find that they don't mess with me. If they do something to somehow interfere with my life - like start asking me a lot o questions about brand loyalty and signing me up for surveys - I stop paying attention to the brand. Admittedly, though - most of the time I don't even pay attention to the branding.

Guest's picture

Yeah, I know a lot of people who are buying Apply products alone because of "loyalty". But they are hurting their pockets with it when they can get similar products for a lesser price.

Guest's picture

Humans are great at rationalizing our behaviors. Sometimes we don't even need to find positives, we simply fall back on the convenience. I always buy one kind of ketchup because I don't feel like taking the time to compare price, ingredients, etc. Interesting article.