Five Barriers to Brand Loyalty

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)

Marketing, as in life, is full of cycles. Led by explosive growth in the tech sector, the CMO mantra has been “demand generation” for about a decade. But to every season there is a turn, and loyalty is ascending again. While the need to acquire new customers is still a pressing concern for every marketer, smart marketers are once again coveting the benefits of a repeat customer, a loyal customer. Loyal customers are less expensive to service and more likely to promote your brand to their network—effectively, free marketing support.

As loyalty comes back into focus, many marketers are bemoaning its premature demise, and they are blaming Millennials. As we explored in our recent podcast, the blame is misplaced. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that Millennials are as capable of loyalty as their parents and grandparents. A 2015 study by IRI found that 44% of Millennials say they are loyal to brands. While they are often value-seekers and price conscious, 52% of those surveyed said they choose quality over price.

We have learned a lot about loyalty in our research on consumer attachment. In study after study, both in the academic community and in our own proprietary field work, attachment has reliably proved itself to be one of the strongest predictors of customer loyalty. Not surprisingly, the forces that weaken attachment also prove to be destructive to loyalty.

We’ve compiled a list of the top five barriers to both attachment and to brand loyalty.

1. Distance

Attachment is created by a strong perceived connection between the brand and the self. It can be measured by a sense of proximity; consumers often describe relationships to their favorite brands as “close.” That’s why brands do themselves a disservice when they create distance with the consumer. Typically accidental, perceived distance can be the result of too many interruptive layers in the brand experience, or by forgetting to be human altogether. Jargon, complicated service experiences, and a dry tone of voice are quick and easy ways to make a consumer reconsider their loyalty to your brand. The antidote is to deliver more humanity. Put a face on your brand. (You can often do this quite literally, as we explored in a recent podcast). Connect it with a culture. Ultimately, it’s important to demonstrate a value system that aligns with your target consumer.

2. Inconsistency

In Brand Real, I wrote that brand value is created by aligning experiences and expectations. Experience is the key. You can set huge and desirable expectations with your customers, but if you don’t deliver, they will be dissatisfied and unlikely to be loyal. Your brand probably has more experiential touch points than you realize, and some of those touch points have an outsized capacity to disappoint and prove that your brand is inconsistent.

Watch a television ad for a typical mobile phone service and you are set with an expectation that seldom plays out in the experience of calling a customer support line. A string of inconsistencies will amplify the likelihood that your consumer will shop for another brand. Ask Chipotle.

3. Reason

Quite often, marketers make the mistake of assuming that consumers are rational; that they are thinkers first who happen to feel. In fact, the opposite is true. But that doesn’t stop many brands from trying to educate their consumer audience—to apply logic and reason to persuade their loyalty. Armed with a litany of proof points, features, and reasons to believe, they are surprised when the message is lost.

The truth is, consumers are irrational a lot of the time, and sometimes the tiniest gesture that provokes a smile will inspire more loyalty than a Socratic manifesto.

4. Exchange Systems

Rewards programs are one of the biggest barriers to true loyalty. That’s not to say they don’t work at driving repeat business. They can. But so many rewards programs are just another form of exchange. They are transactions. By buying nine sandwiches, I can expect the tenth for free. It’s math and I will probably keep coming back to your sandwich shop as my punch card fills up. This isn’t building attachment.

You see, there’s no guarantee that I’ll come back for another punch card. In our research, we’ve found that time-tested “surprise and delight” efforts are better at creating attachment and, subsequently, true brand loyalty. When executed in tandem with a well-oiled rewards program, both measures can shoot through the roof. But exercise caution. One of the fastest ways to destroy brand attachment is to make changes to your rewards program.

5. More more

Loyalty is often destroyed by the false hypothesis that consumers want more choice. If you ask a consumer, they will nearly always tell you that they want lots of options. However, there are many brands with intensely loyal customers who purposefully offer constrained choice.

We recently worked with a brand that created more than 80 variations of its best-selling product within a period of three years. Not surprisingly, they asked for our help because they were experiencing a sudden decline in business. All those product extensions were diluting the core source of attachment to the brand and their consumers were getting confused and a little annoyed.

Brands must invest in the experience and the connection with consumers in order to build and maintain loyalty.

Feature Photo Credit: Jake Levin via Offset

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