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STANDING BY THEIR BRANDS WELL, SOME OF THEM, ANYWAY ONLINE SURVEY EXAMINES THE LIMITS OF LOYALTY

By Published on .

Skippy and Jif take heed. More than one out of four survey respondents (28%) say they'd try another brand of peanut butter if their favorite spread went up 20 (cents). Another 28% would look elsewhere if the price rose half a dollar.

Some 16% would sample a competitor if the brand went up 30 (cents) and 8% would stay fast until the $1 differential. One in five would remain loyal until it soared above $1.

Remarkable loyalty for a peanut butter, but what about pantyhose? Half the Lifescapers in this quick and quirky online poll-the fifth for Advertising Age conducted by American Dialogue on America Online, would shift allegiance if the tights rose 60 (cents). And 25% would bail out if the price of their favorite pantyhose rose $1.25; if it shot up $2 no loyalists would be left.

For 36% of respondents it would take at least a 90 (cents) discount coupon to try brand Y of a non-specified $5 item when they normally buy brand X.

Men, it seems, are more loyal-at least when it comes to their preferred brands. Just 35.3% would bail out if the price of their favorite aftershave went up 90 (cents). Another 23.5% would jump ship at a $1.20 price hike. Some 17.6% would leap at a $3.50 surge and 5.9% would switch scents at a $5 price hike. Yet 17.5% would remain in the fold until the price soared more than $5.

Lifescapers trust Sony more than Pepsi (64% to 36%); and Hershey ever so much more than Mars (92% to 8%). They believe by a 56% to 44% edge that Converse more than Clearasil is likely to be in business in the year 2050. And by an almost 2-to-1 margin (64% to 36%) they think IBM will outlast Apple into the year 2050. And they're betting on Levi's over Kodak (54% to 36%).

Asked to issue report cards for certain brands, taking into account their communication skills, technical know-how and overall reputations, more Lifescapers gave an A to Saturn (72%) than to any other brand.

Sony and Coke also received excellent grades, the former garnering A's from 68% of Lifescapers and the latter from 64%.

AT&T, Disney and Microsoft were graded A by 60% of respondents. Honda and Toyota also received a preponderance of A's from 56% and 52% of respondents respectively. More than half-52%-gave Pepsi and Hewlett-Packard an A.

MCI took the booby price. Some 12% of respondents flunked it while 8% gave F's to Compaq and Swatch. But whereas 44% rated the computer company A, only 12% felt similarly about Swatch and 8% picked the AT&T challenger. Zenith and GTE were also awarded an A by only 8% of respondents but 64% gave GTE a B.

IBM tied with Magnavox, receiving an A from 32% of respondents, ahead of Panasonic and General Mills (both 28%); GE and Ford, both 24%; Pioneer (20%); and Converse, Nintendo and RCA all at 16%; and Sprint and Chevrolet, both 12%.

But Big Blue trailed Mitsubishi with 44% of respondents ranking it A; Apple, Black & Decker and Warner Bros. all received 40% A's and Nike, Reebok, The Gap and Sega, all got 36%. Almost half of respondents (48%) ranked Levi's, Xerox and Kodak an A.

Lifescapers admit they're far more inclined to judge electronics gear more harshly than other consumer products because it's expensive.

What would get consumers to rethink their loyalty? Poor quality control will almost certainly do it. More than four out of five (84%) would question their tie to a company that was involved in a hygiene related scandal. And a foreign substance in a few jars or packages would alienate 72%.

Advertising is another powder keg. Some 76% say an "offensive" ad would strain their bonds to a company while 56% would be put off by an unappealing endorser. Just 36% would rethink things if an ad is "unappealing."

A corporation must toe the line ethically and keep somewhat in line with consumers' politics. Some 64% of Lifescapers would strongly resent a company launching a cause-related campaign to help an "enemy" organization and 60% would question the bond if corporate executives were accused of financial wrongdoing.

More than half (56%) would question their loyalty if the company donated to a charity they strongly disapproved of and 52% might shun the corporation if it "handled adversity poorly."

On the other hand, while still significant, just 36% would feel irked if the company was involved in a sexual harassment suit, and 24% if they moved their manufacturing plant outside the U.S. Some 32% would be turned off if someone they knew was fired and 16% would feel alienated if a company whose products they regularly bought laid off a lot of people.

By far the most compelling motivator impacting a purchase decision, according to Lifescapers, is a no-questions-asked return policy-a 4.64 on a scale of 1 to 5. Other very strong purchase incentives: product authenticity, its identification with a brand category, and a 24-hour customer service line each ranked an average 4.12 followed by a company's "positive history" with a 4.08.

A money-back guarantee is 24 times as important to Lifescapers as a toll-free complaint line (96% vs. 4%).

Less powerful purchase incentives included coupons or other discounts issued (3.92); a close family member employed there (3.88); and a commitment to flexible employment packages (3.56). Knowing someone working there is less compelling (3.44), as is a company's high percentage of senior women (3.36); clever ads (3.32); brand share (3.16); or sponsorship of special events like the Olympics (3.12). Least influential: a famous CEO (2.88), and a reputation for being trendy (2.84).

Almost two-thirds of respondents say that having grown up with a brand their parents use carries more weight than a trusted friend's recommendation (20%) or excellent advertising and packaging (16%).

Lifescapers are more loyal to ketchup than any othr category, followed by canned soup, estimating their tenure with their favorite brand at 17 and 13 years, respectively. Allegiance to a favorite brand of margarine, on the other hand, lasts three years while ties to a preferred facial soap, cigarette, dishwashing liquid and processed fruit snack run five years on average, an affiliation with a salad dressing and evening newscast six years and a salty snack, seven years.

Oddly, no Lifescapers say they prefer European to American clothes. For 72% it doesn't matter while 28% actually prefer American apparel. But when it comes to cars, 40% prefer Japanese and 28% American; 32% claim it makes no difference.

There was little consensus about which major brand most needs a facelift. Singled out as apt candidates for plastic surgery were IBM, GE, Nintendo, Sprint, Kenmore and Kodak. Several respondents urged General Motors to build better autos and Apple to "move along as quickly as the computer industry."

McDonald's and AT&T were selected more than any other marketers as worldwide leaders. "I can't imagine the golden arches won't be on every street corner in the year 2025," noted one respondent.

Others pointed to Sony's "technological advances, ability to advertise, consistent innovations and high quality" as testaments of global leadership. And some named America Online but warned it to lower prices and "clean up the problems."

McDonald's was also tapped as one of the "most American" brands along with Ford whose "Model A started the modern assembly line, a fact," noted one respondent that "has stuck with me since third grade and been reinforced by their `sentimental' commercials." Coca-Cola was a contender for most American because of its red and white colors, and "representation of American traditions and culture."

----------------------------------------------------------------------------How poll was conducted

Lifescapes is overnight, online marketing research and

brainstorming conducted by Bernice Kanner and American Dialogue with the sole market research franchise on America Online. This poll was based on 300 self-selected responses to an e-mailing Dec. 24 to 28.

For each completed quyestionaire, $1 was donated to charity. For more information on Life-scapes, call Bernice Kanner at (212) 427-3570 or email lifescapes@aol.com.

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