A recent spate of articles have declared that brand loyalty is in jeopardy, or even -- as suggested recently in a commentary in this publication -- “on its way out.” The reality is, brand loyalty not only exists, but is a measurable, leading indicator of consumer behavior and brand profitability, and is not going away anytime soon.
The thing is, today’s brand loyalty is different from the brand loyalty of the last century. It has adapted to new consumers in a new marketplace.
If it helps, I invite you to think about brand loyalty as a consumer’s emotional engagement with a brand. In fact, I urge you to. Because emotional brand engagement is the 21 century paradigm for loyalty.
Real assessments of loyalty measure the emotional engagement between the consumer and brand versus the consumer’s perception of their category ideal, best defined as the degree to which a brand is able to meet the expectations consumers hold for their category Ideal. Brands that can do that always see what might reasonably be called “loyalty.” In fact, 25 years of research and independent validity studies have demonstrated a brand that best meets your expectations is the one that you’re six times more likely to buy -- and buy again.
Those engagement levels can identify differences between loyal customers and casual customers. The ability for a brand to meet your expectations identifies a point on a continuum, between brand obsession and indifference. Emotional brand engagement levels vary from category-to-category but are always predictive of consumer behavior. Yes, it’s a more complex measure to take, but today’s consumers, and today’s brand loyalty are more complex too.
A lot of commentators have based their opinions on a McKinsey survey that noted shortages during the pandemic resulted in people buying whatever was available, with a third of respondents trying new brands.
Does that surprise you? You couldn’t get Charmin, so you bought another toilet paper! Does that dumbfound you? Nah, me either. Researchers really ought to note the distinction between need and allegiance before leaping to the QED, brand loyalty is on its way out.
A tiny segment of respondents indicated the new brands would have standing in future purchase decisions. Well, OK. Except as far back as 1990, researchers knew “purchase intent” was notoriously overstated in survey responses. What the survey did confirm was the efficacy of mid-1980 satisfaction and total-quality movements, which made primacy-of-product the rule rather than the exception.
So, there was pretty much no downside to buying a “new” brand of toilet paper when Charmin wasn’t available, until it was, and consumers went back to buying it and not the “new brand.” So much for standing in the purchase decision.
And yeah, you might try another brand because something’s new. Novelty has its place, but it almost never unseats a brand that best meets your expectations. Unless it meets expectations better than your current brand. That’s called “good marketing.”