A number of years ago the design agency where I was a junior account executive was pitching some business for Taco Bell. The prospective client was visiting our studios and I had already ushered him in to the big conference room where there was an assortment of breakfast pastries, orange juice, and coffee. My boss, who took his caffeine carbonated, entered with a can of Coke. The client glared at the object in my boss’ hand and growled, “Get that thing outta here.”

Guy: Wow. Meet Mr. Grouchypants.

Dot: My boss realized his error in half a second. But it was too late. Taco Bell was owned at the time by PepsiCo, and there’s hardly a brand rivalry more refined than that of Coke and Pepsi.

Guy: So, the guy had a problem with your boss’ choice of beverage. He didn’t have to get his undies in a bunch.

Dot: The meeting was all downhill from there. The guy from PepsiCo was polite, but there was no way we were going to land the Taco Bell project.

Guy: Is there even such a thing as that kind of company brand loyalty these days? I mean, employees change companies like they change their underwear…

Dot: What’s with all the underpants metaphors, Guy?

Guy: It seems apropos, doesn’t it? A true believer wears their brand loyalty like a second skin. So would someone who leaves Levi Strauss for a job at Calvin Klein have to get a whole new wardrobe?

Dot: Flaunting the competitor at work could be a career limiting move, don’t you think?

Guy: Okay, probably a good idea to buy some new pants. For the optics.

Dot: Optics? There you go with the jargon.

Guy: I knew you’d like that one. But isn’t it all about perception? What about products that aren’t so obvious? If you took a job at Starbucks, Dot, would you have to start drinking coffee? I know you never acquired the taste.

Dot: Lucky for me they have tea. But I do wonder if it wouldn’t even make sense to apply for a job at a company whose product I don’t use. On the other hand, if every employee only uses the company product, how can the company objectively assess the competition?

Guy: Data. They’ve got data.

Dot: But you know there’s no substitute for hands-on experience.

Guy: Like the credit card product manager who proudly carries, and uses, sixteen different credit cards. You know who I’m talking about.

Dot: And he seems to know a lot about the benefits of each card. I admire his dedication. Personally, I just use the company’s card.

Guy: Probably a good move on your part.

Dot: But it’s rare that colleagues ever see me using my card.

Guy: But as you say, visibility isn’t the only issue.

Dot: The other day I had lunch with a colleague. We took out our wallets to split the bill. She was surprised to see me using our company’s credit card, then went on to list the reasons why the competitive card’s rewards program is better. I felt like I was being judged.

Guy: I guess you were. But weren’t you judging her, too?

Dot: A point for you, Capitain Underpants.

Guy: Can I get you a Coke?

Dot: Nope. It’s Diet Pepsi for me.

Guy: Ah ha.

Dot: But I’ll switch in a heartbeat if I get a great job at Brand X. Have you heard the term “serial monogamy?”

Guy: Yea, it’s the theory that humans actually aren’t programmed as a species to live out “til death do us part,” but they’re faithful to each mate in turn. You’re saying the same goes for company loyalty?

Dot: Sure. Otherwise it’s like saying the divorce rate is so high, it doesn’t even make sense to be faithful to your spouse.

Guy: Love the one you’re with.

Dot: Why not?

Guy: I’ll tell you one reason. When you’re an insider at a company, you know how the sausage is made. You know what goes into making the product. You may be aware of where corners are cut. Where shortcuts are taken.

Dot: If that’s the case, then you should be a part of the solution. You can be the one to help fix it. Maybe the only way you know what needs to be done is through hands-on experience.

Guy: Yes, if management is willing to listen.

Dot: Suddenly the question becomes bigger. If the company you work for produces a flawed product, and management is unwilling to make improvements, should you quit?

Guy: You’re right. That is a bigger question. Not everyone has the luxury to just walk away from an income.

Dot: So back to that can of Coke. Is it just optics? Just for show?

Guy: I guess when you join any group, you buy in to wearing their symbols and doing their rituals. It’s how you signal you’re part of the group.

Dot: Guy, I think you’ve got it. It may be as simple as that. Not so much a loyalty demanded by the company, but the social norm of fitting in. Kind of an extension of Dress for Success.

Guy: Sure, brands as accessories for success. Now that we’ve solved that, what’s next?

Dot: Let’s split the bill. Here’s your chance to show me what kind of plastic you’ve got in that classy Coach wallet.

Guy: Judging much?

Copyright 2016 Liz Behlke