By Bryan Urbick, founder and chairman of Consumer Knowledge Centre.
There is a term used by marketers so frequently that it often seems tired and worn out. In fairness, it expresses what all brands strive for but do not all achieve: genuine customer loyalty.
Qualitative researchers, by virtue of their experience, generally have a firm understanding and appreciation of what drives customer loyalty and what it represents. Most research projects these days involve a certain element of finding out what emotional footprints brands leave behind - what triggers loyalty and what turns customers away.
There are times, however, when this message is re-affirmed in a very meaningful way. It is these personal experiences that frame all previous learnings and experiences, and make them stand out in our minds. Being acknowledged as a special customer and being noticed and valued or being treated like a real VIP, even for a short period of time, is all it takes to truly understand what makes customer loyalty such a valuable asset.
For me, it took 2 million miles of air travel with United Airlines, a simple letter of personal thanks and an elegant upgrade, to highlight what consumers have been saying for years, when someone feels valued they respond in kind, with loyalty and with respect.
Truly understanding the power of driving loyalty by making consumers feel special, significant and (most importantly) noticed, is the difference between having a group of people who buy from you and a tribe of people who would go to some lengths to ensure they buy from you – that is the difference.
No matter the mechanism, the goal of loyalty programmes needs to make consumers feel as if they are appreciated – empty points-based schemes and ‘statuses’ are irrelevant if the consumer doesn’t feel valued. We shouldn’t be asking ‘what scheme?’, but rather, ‘what needs to be done to make our customers feel special, important and valued?’. We should also be honest with ourselves, and find those issues that make people feel ‘un-valued’ and unimportant, and we should rectify them.
Creating customer loyalty can seem a stretch too far for some brands. It is easy to succumb to
the belief that the competition makes it hard to stand out, let alone ensuring customers seek you out, time and again. Somehow we mistake money off coupons and promotions as drivers of loyalty – though it can help, they are more often drivers of volume sales, but not necessarily loyalty.
The emotional mind-set that occurs when a customer is genuinely loyal is so powerful that cost and competition often make little difference. A truly loyal customer will walk all the way down to the other end of the shopping aisle to find their preferred brand, rather than pick-up the item that is on the end-of-shelf promotional display. They will ask for help if they can’t find it, true loyalists will even drive to another store if need be.
If you question a genuinely loyal consumer about why they love their favourite brand, it is often because of the way that brand makes them feel (valued, loved, listened-to, appreciated). Any brand can get in that close, it is all a matter of listening and reaching out, and cherishing the consumer. It is the personal touch too, which obviously is harder to achieve for a soap brand than an airline - yet does it need to be? With a little creativity, even a soap brand can show it has heart - just look at Dove and the Campaign for Real Beauty.
I can say one thing, I now plan to give United my continued loyalty in the coming years – something makes me realise, now more than before, that it is an airline deserving of my faithfulness. I think I may even make it a point to get to three million miles.
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