Buying brand loyalty

November 23, 2011

Two researchers at the University of Oxford found in a behavioral study that consumers, when properly rewarded, often make better decisions when they have less concrete information.

While this might sound like a fairly common conclusion that supports the importance of emotional connections in decision-making, the consumers in this story were actually birds, European starlings that were consuming food pellets. The behavioral ecologists were researching how the birds would respond, after being trained to peck at colored keys that would yield food after various timed delays. While the birds were able to learn to peck at combinations of keys for increased food, when given more complex information to process, their bird brains overloaded.

Offering a reward to try something new isn’t very new. Reward programs, especially with banks, have been around since there were electric toasters and crockpots offered as incentives. These days, the rewards are much more economic. Capital One Bank is running a huge campaign offering 5 times the interest for opening one of their high yield checking accounts. Every mailbox is stuffed with rental car, hotel group and credit card come-ons that promise discounts and rewards for membership or participation. Even local businesses — from car washes to restaurants — offer percentages off to bring customers in.

What’s happening is that companies are trying to buy brand loyalty. Consumers used to become loyal to brands because the brand lived up to its promise of performance as stated in advertising. Tires really did grip the road. Toothpaste actually made teeth whiter. Coffee was good to the last drop. Features made products distinctive enough for loyalists to gravitate to one brand or another.

Today, with many product features at parity, it’s service that can drive brand loyalty. Consider a positive experience at a hotel check-in counter, a flight attendant who greets you by name as a frequent flyer, a store clerk who helps you find an item, or a telephone service representative who takes the time to solve your problem with courtesy, intelligence and respect. These are the ties that build loyalty to a brand. These emotional connections are key to building a brand that will drive decisions. Clearly defining the how the brand satisfies our individual emotional needs — for love, for attention, for status, for self-confidence, for security — can open the door to build real brand loyalty.

Otherwise, we’re just being fed pellets to peck at.

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