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Gibson, Fender & the Illogic of Brand Loyalty

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I used to sell musical instruments for a living. Flutes, violins, accordions — you name it, I sold it. It was a fun gig at first, but it was retail and, well, my enthusiasm eventually succumbed to the daily routine of soul-crushing banality. The job did, however, prove a good learning experience. Namely, it provided a firsthand look into how brand loyalty plays out on the sales floor. And when it comes to musical instruments, in no category will you find fiercer brand loyalists than in electric guitars:

“Got any Gibsons er Fenders?”

“No, sorry. We don’t carry those brands.”

“Well you’d sell a lot more if ya did! Tham guitars is the best!”

It happened every week. Some longhaired know-it-all in a sweat-stained trucker cap would peek his head in, quickly scan the guitar section and then chide me upon discovering that we didn’t carry Gibson or Fender. Sure, we had guitars. We had plenty. But our guitars didn’t have the right name on the headstock, and often, it was a deal breaker.

So many times I wanted to say, “Wake up, Jimmy Bob! It’s not what you play, it’s how you play it! Our guitars are just as good!” But it was a lost cause.

The loyalists could not be reasoned with.

It didn’t matter that our guitars were, in every demonstrable way, made as well as comparable models from the behemoth brands. It didn’t matter that, in many cases they were produced at the very same overseas factories by the same computer-controlled machines. Sometimes our guitars even had the exact pickups and hardware used by the big brands. Still it didn’t matter.

For the loyalists, it was never about the product. It was always about the brand.

A strong brand turns an equal product into a superior product. It makes cola taste better. It makes toothpaste more effective. It makes the diamonds sparkle more brilliantly. It makes vacuum cleaners suck harder. And it even makes guitars sound better.

Logic need not apply.

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