Switching Costs and Gay Rights

The whole Barilla flap mostly went under my radar, though I registered it with a little annoyance; I like their lasagna noodles because they have a great recipe on the back. If you missed it, the Chairman of Barilla group (Guido Barilla) announced that the pasta company would not be using gay couples in their advertising because they don’t agree with gay relationships. “If gays like our pasta and our advertisings, they will eat our pasta; if they don’t like that, they will eat someone else’s pasta.”

What possibly escapes Mr. Barilla is the concept of switching cost. You guys are all smart and understand it, I’m sure: how much does it cost someone to change brands? I will say that there is not a whole lot of pasta brand loyalty in my family, nor have I ever seen pasta brand loyalty in anyone else who buys pasta. “I always buy Barilla pasta because…” is not a sentence I have ever heard anyone start. Pasta is cheap and bought anew every time you want some. That means that the switching cost is…the difference in price between your brand and another brand. Pennies, probably.

You know who does get it? Bertolli. If you can’t read German, the text accompanying the photo says “Pasta and love for all!” See, when switching costs are low, what you want to do is avoid giving reasons for people to switch away from your brand. Car manufacturers can survive recalls and bad publicity–to an extent–because the millions of people who own Car X are not going to immediately run out and trade in their car. If Honda suddenly announced that they were not going to feature gay people in their ads, I’d be upset, but I wouldn’t stop driving my Honda (I might take the identifying “H” off, though).

Barilla’s just pissed off a bunch of people (lukewarm apology notwithstanding), and Bertolli happily jumped in, basically saying, “Hey! Looking for another pasta brand? Here you go!” Easy for people to make that switch, given the reason to do so.

(Now, I’m sure there are a bunch of people who also have said, “Christian straight-people pasta? Sign me up!” So in the end, it may not be very harmful, and honestly, probably it won’t have much effect on sales. But I’d like to think it’s changed at least a few minds.)

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