Brand Disloyalty

Sorry, guys, but I'm just not that into you.

"This is not a marketing call. We'd just like to ask you a few questions about your recent cancellation of your AT&T account."

"Okay, I'm game. Fire away."

For the next fifteen minutes, I answered mostly multiple choice, some yes-or-no, and a very few open-ended questions about a decision I made last fall, but didn't implement until May 2: the end of a thirteen-year relationship. AT&T had been my cell provider since 2002, when I decided to reactivate my teaching license and spend a year subbing while I figured out what to do with my life. To maximize my classroom days, I needed to be reachable wherever I might be and, more importantly, I needed to be able to constantly call in to the automated "Subfinder" systems of the dozen or more districts I was registered with, picking up whatever job I could find. That meant having a cell phone with all those numbers on speed dial, so that even when I was on the job, I could call during my breaks. My system worked: even though I didn't start subbing until November, I logged more than 100 days in the 2002-3 school year, enough to qualify me for a step on the salary scale once I began teaching full-time.

I stuck with AT&T as long as I did because, as is the case for most Americans, I found myself locked into rolling contracts. Once I started providing cell phones for my kids, upgrading them as birthday presents, the thought of breaking any of those three out-of-sync contracts was just too expensive to consider. This despite the poor service I experienced almost every time I called in to protest a charge. Some of those service calls had me on hold for an hour or more, but the price of punishing this megacorporation for its shoddy service was still too steep. And then there were the iPhones: only AT&T offered them at first, and I quickly became attached to mine. Eventually, AT&T allowed me to do away with my contract, though now it had me on a payment plan for two iPhone 5s which might as well have been a contract: to sever the relationship would have meant paying off the phone in full, at a cost even more extreme than that of the old contract-breaking penalty.

Still, I wanted out. I had somehow been talked into giving up the unlimited data I had enjoyed since acquiring my first iPhone, and while I wasn't using much, Sean had no access to the internet apart from his phone. I found myself paying for overages almost every month. The final straw was a blunder on my part: I changed banks last fall, and the one electronic payment I forgot to change was AT&T. Rather than call my number to let me know the payment had been rejected, AT&T called a dormant line--Sarah had switched to a different company a year earlier, and I was only holding onto that line, which was still on a contract, to avoid an early cancellation penalty--and sent text messages to Sean, who didn't know what to do with them. Then they turned off the account. If Sean hadn't messaged me through Facebook at a coffee shop--we still had wi-fi-- I wouldn't have realized our phone service was off until after school. I called at lunchtime on a land line, and learned that my oversight was going to cost me $80 in reconnection penalties.

I tried talking them down, working my way up the customer service chain, but AT&T wouldn't budge. I told the customer service superviser I finally reached that I'd been a loyal customer for twelve years, and that that ought to count for something. I asked him why simply flipping a switch to turn my line back on should cost $50 (the other $30 was an NSF penalty, and I wasn't protesting it). He said they were holding me responsible for my mistake. I reminded him that AT&T had blown it with notifying me about the mistake. He patiently refused to use any discretion. All right, I told him, I'll be switching to T-Mobile at the first opportunity. As far as I could tell, he didn't care.

And that's what I told the survey person during those few times when she asked open-ended questions: my experience of the inflexility of this huge corporation had cost them any loyalty I might have had. Two days after I learned that T-Mobile was now buying people out of not just their contracts, but out of whatever they still owed on their phone payment plans, I was in the Boise T-Mobile store with Sean, initiating the switch. We've got new phones now, unlimited data, and my phone bill promises to be about $40 less a month.

There was a time when I bought the line that some brands are better than others. I always brushed with Colgate. I preferred Coke to Pepsi, McDonalds to Burger King, Toyota and Honda to any other car company. It's how I was raised: my parents' generation believed in brand loyalty, and we always had Colgate and Zest in the bathroom, Joy in the kitchen, and, I'm sure, many other brands I just don't remember. It never occurred to us to buy the other brands, and we only purchased generics when there was a budget crunch. Our brands were just better. Why switch when we were already using the best?

Then I went to college and took Economics 101, and learned about price discrimination. I was shocked by what I was hearing from Professor Hanson: the store-brand toothpaste was made in the same plant as the Colgate I'd been using for so many years. In fact, it was the same toothpaste, just packaged in a less attractive tube. How could the corporation justify selling the same product for two different prices? Simple: they were going after both the aflluent, full-price-paying consumers and the more frugal generic-price-paying misers as well. No, they didn't make as much profit selling the lower priced stuff, but they still made more than they would if they'd just ignored those customers. And that's when I decided that I was done buying brand name products unless they were on sale at loss-leader prices, and would cost me less than generics.

That's how I've been ever since. I have no brand loyalty. I'm a marketer's worst nightmare: packaging means nothing to me, sales pitches get nowhere with me, even the cleverest of ads won't get me to pony up a little extra for whatever they're selling. Oh, I do still favor some products over others: I'm a dedicated iPhone user, and I'd rather drive an Accord than almost any other car--except that the necessity of changing cars in a hurry put me in a Hyundai three and a half years ago, and now that it's paid for, I'm planning to keep driving it until it falls apart, which will probably not be for a very long time as, surprise! Hyundais are now just as reliable as Hondas, more proof that brand loyalty is a fool's virtue.

Time to put this blog to bed and head upstairs, where I will take some Walgreens cold medicine, brush my teeth with Kirkland (Costco) toothpaste, and climb between my Target sheets. Sweet dreams.

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