Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Hard-core fans stay loyal to brand In Chicago, Marshall Field's devotees

Hard-core fans stay loyal to brand In Chicago, Marshall Field's devotees are planning rallies, cutting up Macy's credit cards and vowing never to shop at the stores again
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune
Published September 5, 2006

Gail Heriot is taking the demise of Marshall Field's to heart.

The California lawyer dug into her own pocket this summer, spending more than $2,000 to print and distribute 25,000 "Keep It Field's" lapel stickers to similar-minded Field's fans. She mailed thousands of decals from her home in San Diego and flew to Chicago last month to hand out more near Field's State Street flagship--slated, along with the rest of Field's 61 department stores, to become Macy's on Saturday.

Few brands have inspired such a public outcry. But every once in a while folks who might never attend a political protest or campaign fundraiser rally together when a favorite product is taken away.

It happened with the Ford Motor Co.'s Thunderbird, and twice to the king of brands Coca-Cola Co. with Coke and Tab colas.

The prospect of losing a beloved soda or car can strike deep for true fans. To them, the loss seems terribly unfair and unreasonable, and they don't take it sitting down.

"Part of what drives people to rally or protest is when they feel there is a big power or corporate behemoth behind it," said David Ruder, managing director of Chicago-based risk assessment firm Adaptive Alpha LLC. "It's not just that something is going away, it's being taken away. The only power they have left is to protest."

With Field's, a relentless chorus of disenchanted shoppers has voiced its objections ever since owner Federated Department Stores Inc. disclosed its decision in September 2005 to mothball the Field's name along with about a dozen other regional department store names in an attempt to create a national brand.

In Chicago, Field's devotees are planning rallies, cutting up Macy's credit cards and vowing never to shop at the stores.

"It's been hard to explain to Californians, but I love Marshall Field's," said Heriot. "Some people love baseball teams. I love Marshall Field's."

Heriot developed her affection for Field's while living in Chicago for a decade after college. She has also lived in Washington, D.C., home of Hecht's, which Federated is also converting to Macy's. And she has lived in Philadelphia and shopped at Wanamaker, before it became Hecht's. But neither store struck a spark with her the way Field's did.

"Marshall Field's is special for a lot of reasons," she said. "It's unusual for a department store to be so intertwined with a great city."

On the day the name changes, a grass-roots organization called FieldsFansChicago is planning to rally at 9:30 a.m. at the corner of State and Washington Streets outside the Field's flagship.

Since founding the organization through a Web log, or blog, in November, James McKay says there have been thousands of posts from disgruntled Field's shoppers. McKay has never organized a rally and "sometimes feels like kind of a nut" as the reluctant leader of the Field's fans. But as the pressure built from the blog's posters to hold a rally, he stepped up. Changing the Field's name to Macy's is like calling the New York Yankees the Chicago Yankees or Wrigley Field Shea Stadium, McKay said.

Pat Craven, another fan, joined McKay in making 150 T-shirts inscribed with the motto "Chicago Shops at ... Marshall Field's (not Macy's)" and selling them for $20 through the FieldsFansChicago.org Web site and for up to $45 on eBay.

Craven hopes to convince a group of friends to ride their motorcycles to State Street and circle the Field's store wearing the T-shirts and carrying signs to protest the name change.

"We're standing up as free Americans exercising our right to say we are mad about the change," Craven said. "Field's is Chicago and Macy's has always been New York. My feeling is they don't care what the customer wants."

Macy's, for its part, is taking the dissent in stride and banking that once the name is changed, shoppers will discover that they like Macy's after all.

Frank Guzzetta, chairman of Macy's North, the Minneapolis-based division that operates Marshall Field's and other stores in the upper Midwest, estimates less than 1 percent of the Field's credit card holders have sent back their Macy's cards so far. Almost all of the complaints have come from the Chicago area, he said.

Guzzetta read and responded to most of the angry letters and in about 30 cases said he called customers himself.

Macy's isn't taking anything away, he said, but simply changing the name. The building, traditions and merchandise assortment will remain "fundamentally" the same, he said.

"When customers come to the store and see that we have what they want and see that they like it, that's the only way to win loyalty," Guzzetta said. "There are probably a number of people who won't give us a shot because to them it was about the name. It's not rational, it's emotional, and I can't change people's emotions. Our wish is the next generation will become emotionally attached to Macy's."

Such intense emotional attachment to a brand name is hard to come by, but when it happens, it's powerful. The quintessential example, say brand experts, is the New Coke marketing blunder in the 1980s.

Coca-Cola was losing out in blind taste tests to PepsiCo. Inc.'s sweeter Pepsi and feared losing market share to its No. 2 rival. So Coca-Cola shelved Coke and came out with New Coke, a sweeter recipe that beat Pepsi in blind taste tests.

Coke drinkers rebelled. Even though a new set of blind taste tests proved consumers still preferred the sweeter recipe of New Coke, their attachment to the old brand remained. A grassroots group formed claiming 100,000 members in a call to bring back the old Coke.

Coca-Cola reported receiving 1,500 calls a day to its consumer hotline, more than triple the typical rate. Eventually, Coca-Cola brought back the old formula under Coke Classic and shelved New Coke for good.

Similarly, thousands of Tab lovers called and wrote Coca-Cola in the 1980s when it changed the formula of the hip '70s cola in the pink can. Coca-Cola eventually relented.

Car lovers did the same with the Thunderbird a decade ago. Ford stopped production in 1998 because of declining sales but brought the car back three years later amid consumer outcry. It finally retired the model last year.

"Brand equity takes years and years and years to fully develop and flourish," said Torrey Foster, managing partner at Heidrick & Struggles' global consumer practice in Chicago. "A brand can't be created overnight and it can't be killed overnight."




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