In short: brand loyalty is the affection, fidelity, and commitment a consumer has for a brand or product. Back in the 90s, in the prehistoric time before social media, marketers had a lot fewer resources at much higher costs to communicate with consumers.
Due to the high costs of media, such as magazine ads, back bus banners, TV ads, and radio ads, the advantage of brand exposure was for those who had high budgets.
There was not much room for building brand communities, better understanding the audiences’ behaviors, or receiving timely feedback on their products (if you haven’t noticed, these are all benefits of social media that we often take for granted).
Yet, it was not uncommon to hear about brand loyalty and the extremes consumers would go to to acquire a loved product. At that time, brand loyalty was expressed in ways that are uncommon today – think of Heinz lovers who would travel long distances to buy their favorite ketchup or Coca-Cola lovers who would never taste a drop of Pepsi, no matter what. Apple aficionados who spend hours in line to get their new model of iPhone or, going way back, Atari fans who would wait endless months for a new game to be launched.
Communicating a company’s identity – who they are, what they do, their values, and how they help consumers – are part of brand marketing activities. It takes time, effort, consistency, and a deep understanding of a particular consumer segment to establish a crucial part of the brand-consumer relationship: trust.
In modern marketing, establishing trust with consumers requires much more than these brand marketing activities. Brand reputation in the age of technology means consumers are also looking for how brands communicate with their communities, how transparent they are in solving consumers’ complaints, and even how they position themselves when it comes to social issues such as climate change or gender equality.
As with any relationship, trust leads to loyalty. And while loyalty is hard earned, it’s a long-impact activity. It is gained when there are problems: a new mobile phone that will not work properly, terrible service at a restaurant, an overcharge on a credit card, a late flight that messes up vacation plans.
Brands need things to go wrong so they can earn trust and loyalty. It is in the middle of a crisis that you really get to know a brand (and a person as well). The good news is that while social media helps to amplify the voices who complain, it also amplifies the brand that responds. Brands that delete complaints, have long response times, or do not respond to issues on their social platforms are on the opposite path to brand loyalty.
All of the activities that define brand marketing activities (identity, image, values, personality, positioning) are annulled if the brand is not able to gain and retain the trust of consumers. Brand loyalty thus becomes the result of a well-established brand identity combined with the delivery of quality products/services, and most of all, trust. Trust and brand loyalty walk hand-in-hand, and both can only be achieved via a robust customer experience, transparency, and aligned values.
Nike took a very big risk in 2018 when it aligned its brand with the football player Colin Kaepernick in a campaign titled “Dream Crazy”. The controversial campaign triggered angry consumers who burned, cut, or ripped Nike clothing as a statement against the brand aligning itself with the athlete.
The brand knew it could gamble with such a controversial positioning because it has built its brand to the point that loyal consumers would not only stick by their side but also admire and celebrate the courage and the values the brand was demonstrating through this marketing campaign. Nike fans who destroyed their products were not really loyal to the brand, were they? After all, loyalty is also a result of shared values.
Critics had a lot to say about Nike’s decision: they are going to lose customers; people do not want brands to take sides on controversial issues; it is not the place for a brand to make a political statement; the brand is going to lose their loyal fans. But the result was surprising to those outside of the organization, but perhaps, very expected for their marketing team: Nike stocks went up and so did the sales of their direct sales channels.
This story illustrates the importance of brand loyalty in brand marketing in this new decade. Authenticity, personality, and strong values matter more than ever. In a time where consumers are bombarded with marketing messages online and offline, global promotions, and infinite options, consumer loyalty is the result of a hard-earned trust gained by the brand.
The challenge for brands and marketers when it comes to brand loyalty is that of maintaining consistency in their values, authenticity in their communications and nurturing relationships with their most committed consumers, all the while trying to move their consumers within the funnel from awareness to advocacy.
Understand your audience, create more effective content to engage and grow your customer base, and measure social media’s impact on your business goals.