Every brand manager would like to believe that the world will love their brand. Given how much time, energy and experience they pour into trying to make that happen, that seems like a reasonable hope. But, as Douglas Van Praet observes in a recent Fast Company article, consumers are far from inclined to feel that way. “The human truth is no one wants to connect emotionally to your brand … People want to be [led] to a better life not bond with companies.”
We could debate whether people want to be led at all, but there’s little dispute that, in the light of this idea, brand loyalty is probably not what most brand managers have talked themselves into believing it is at all. If Van Praet is right, consumers are not loyal to a brand. Not really. Buyers are most loyal to the feeling that a brand evokes in them and in those around them. The emotion sways them. Perhaps the company reassures them, but it’s the feeling they keep coming back for.
Loyalty is connected with the hopes people have for their lives, not the companies themselves. People are inclined towards stories and ideas and changes that brands articulate that stimulate them and that attract their interest. All of this flies in the face of how brand managers rationalize what they do: that people identify with the brand; that awareness evokes loyalty and familiarity generates action. The thing is, maybe buyers aren’t really looking for the company when they look for the logo – perhaps they’re looking for a sign that the emotion they treasure is present.
This further suggests that brands that communicate but fail to bond people to ideas may not have achieved anything like the levels of loyalty that they think they have. They may get a response – but if Van Praet is right that response is triggered by other reasons: convenience; price; happenstance … Buyers may be moved by a stimulus to act. That does not mean they are hooked into the brand. Contact, even action, is not persuasion.
These findings from research of the ways we go about our lives have confirmed people are nowhere near as random as previously thought. In point of fact, after tracking more than 100,000 mobile phone users over a period of six months, the clear conclusion from this research if you’re a brand is that people mostly visit a limited number of locations time and time again. Customer loyalty pays. Literally.
What’s interesting to note, given that we live in this much heralded era of mobility, is that most people also move around over very small distances – five to ten kilometers. No surprise then that this infographic shows a pizza-chain within a 10-mile radius across the United States.
Some people, of course, range much further, but even then, they stick to remarkably similar patterns, once again tending to return to the same places over and over again. So customer loyalty is also limited. For the most part, it operates within finite parameters.
But a recent study of grocery buying habits also reveals something stranger, and contradictory. Even though we generally return to the same places and those places are usually close by, we will travel much further than seems reasonable if the incentive to do so is great enough. For example, while we may like our fast food close, people in cities will travel miles to shop for food from their favorite outlet, even if they have a supermarket or corner store nearby. Watch the videos and see for yourself. Customer loyalty defies logic.
If you’re a business that depends on physical traffic, here are three takeaways around customer loyalty that I think are worth noting.
Most good marketers know how to gain top of mind. Good marketers are adept at widening the funnel at the top end. They’ve good at introducing new lines, new variants, new dimensions – in order to attract new customers. They know how to work with their agencies and their internal teams to fashion a story that intrigues to draw an audience. They know how to weight media flights and craft promotions that persuade consumers to call or to visit. They’ve learned to charm. Competition’s taught them to do that well.
That used to be their biggest challenge.
Some would argue of course that’s never been more difficult, but, ironically, it’s not the biggest challenge marketers face anymore.
Now the biggest challenge facing marketers is gaining and retaining front of heart: sustaining the appeal for those who already believe in the face of ongoing enticement from determined competitors.
That’s because, between initial purchase and continued purchase, a vital change takes place. What consumers need at first is awareness, authenticity, excitement and a sense of gain. The sales funnel works well to get them through the obstacles to first buy.
But after that comes the need for affirmed faith. Once consumers are passionate about a brand, they need different things. They certainly don’t need to be sold to anymore – at least not like they were sold to at first. Now they need to be reminded that they’re making the right choice every time they buy, and they need to feel rewarded for the decision to lock in.
Problem is, for so many brands there’s no real sense of that reward. They either ignore loyal consumers. Or smother them. They group them as stats. Or they don’t segment them at all.
These to my mind are four of the biggest mistakes that marketers make that lead to a loss of loyalty:
It’s amazing who we forget and how quickly. I don’t remember any of the people on the bus last week. Who did I ride home with last Thursday? My mind goes blank. It’s nothing personal – it’s simply that I have no reason to remember them. Or they me.
Exactly the same for most transactions that take place between people and brands. People get what they’re looking for, and then they go.
If you ask the people responsible for running brands what customers they want, they’ll often say “as many as possible” or “people who spend a lot” or this age group or that ethnic group – but that’s not what they really want at all. Because, when probed, they have no idea who they want as customers. They’ll take anyone whose buying. They just want the money.
And yet many of them spend their working days trying to get those very same people to value them above the myriad other offerings. To value them as more than just a price.
As Robert Kozinets has so rightly pointed out, one of the great fallacies about relationships is that brands tend to connect value and loyalty – but customers can actually be loyal and buy very little, or they can buy a lot and not be loyal at all.
I love this distinction by Martin Bishop between the brands we’re stuck on versus the one we’re stuck with. Brands we’re stuck on captivate us. Brands we’re stuck with hold us captive. As Bishop points out, “Consumers may be loyal to both types of brands if loyalty is simply measured in terms of repeat business but their feelings about the two types brands [are] very different.”
Brands we are stuck on reward us emotionally through the relationship we have with them. We are loyal to them, and our relationship is expressed through repeat business. Brands we are stuck with are there strictly for functional compliance – because we feel we have no choice but to have a relationship with them, or with someone equally as unattractive. And we engage with them as much as we have to, but only to that point.
The difficulty for brand owners is that the metrics for these two very different levels of “loyalty” can look very much the same: low churn; repeat purchase; consistent revenue. The difference lies in how the customers themselves feel, and whether they openly express that or not. And the litmus test for such loyalty is when a viable and competitive alternative offer hits the market. Those who are stuck on the brand may notice it but consciously choose to stay away. Those who feel stuck may well decide not to stick it out any longer or at the very least to look to escape at the first opportunity.