dog with biscuit on his nose
PHOTO: McDobbie Hu

Zach Hendrix is co-founder of GreenPal, which he describes as Uber for Lawn Care. The company recently tackled the challenge of how to inject some personality into its business to drive brand loyalty with its roughly 220,000 customers.

After a few brainstorming sessions, it decided the best way to its customers’ hearts was via their pets. The company had already been gathering information on its customers’ petsif they have them, and if so, their names, so its lawn vendors would know to be careful when entering the property. “We decided we could use this information about our customer to send a personalized gift to our customers' pet, addressed to them,” Hendrix says. “This really wowed our customers, we received personal thank you notes, videos of their dog chewing the bone we sent posted to Facebook and thank you tweets.”

GreenPal's pet campaign tapped into one of the most important rules for building loyalty with a customer: Develop an emotional connection. Repeat purchasing behavior does not necessarily equal brand loyalty, said Ioannis Kareklas, assistant professor of marketing at University at Albany-SUNY. “Consumers who are truly brand loyal tend to not only buy the same brand repeatedly, but also experience a strong emotional connection with their favorite brands.”

And of course other factors play a part as well, such as high-quality products or services and excellent customer service. Loyal customers also like brands that don’t over-promise. “Selling high-quality products will not lead to brand loyalty if consumers are made unrealistic promises that the actual products could never live up to,” Kareklas said.

All of these best practices are necessary not just to build a loyal customer base, but at the bare minimum, to keep customers from jumping to the nearest competitor when a better price is offered. And that happens with depressing regularity.

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Customer Lifetime Value Is Up for Grabs

A study released earlier this year by Maritz Motivation Solutions, based on data from more than 2,000 US consumers, found 68 percent of consumers identified as “transient” loyalists, saying they could be convinced to buy a competitor’s brand. Just 29 percent of consumers identified as “resolute” loyalists, who buy only from their favorite brands. Three percent said they are “detached,” not loyal to brands at all.

“This new data reveals significantly more customer lifetime value is up for grabs than not,” says Barry Kirk, vice president of loyalty marketing solutions for Maritz Motivation Solutions. “With so many consumers identifying [themselves] as 'transients,' it’s critical that brands find a way to stand out, especially when service, quality and price are perceived as equal.”

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How Brand Loyalty Happens

There is no magical formula for making this happen. Building loyalty simply involves a lot of hard work — but the payoff is well worth it. “Brand loyalty does take quite a bit of time and effort, but retaining current customers by building brand loyalty is much less expensive than other revenue-increasing initiatives, such as converting competitors' customers and category build,” said Brandon Bateman, founder of the Bateman Collective.

Two main motivations tip the scales for a purchase of one brand over another, he said.

  1. Perceived value and product benefits on a logical level.
  2. An emotional connection with the brand.

“Purchases that happen because of perceived value and product benefits can be swayed,” he said. “It is common for people to move to a competitor, as soon as the price drops or a new feature is released.” But purchases made because of an emotional connection to the brand are far different, Bateman continued because the consumer considers the products as extensions of them personally. The consumer doesn't just think, ‘this makes sense,’ they think, ‘this company understands me.’ “With the product so close to the consumers' identity, prying them away will take more than just a better offer,” Bateman said.

Related Article: How to Drive Sustainable Loyalty and Customer Engagement

Tactics for Building Loyalty

While the message will be different for each brand, a number of tactics can help a company support the connections it forges. For instance, one is social proofthe idea that humans naturally look toward those around them to help make decisions, said Chris Hayes, executive vice president of brand strategy at J.Schmid. This is why brands find millennials to be surprisingly loyal customers, once they have won them over, he said. “Millennials’ willingness to share their thoughts and opinions across the various social media platforms carries tremendous weight within this group. Millennials almost universally ignore advertising, but a positive comment shared by the right influencer on social media can have an impact almost overnight,” he said.

Another, more basic strategy is just being on the ball, said Robb Hecht, adjunct professor of marketing at Baruch College in New York City. “Brand loyalty is increasingly driven not by taglines, being funny or catchy jingles, but by utilitarian immediacy where the brands who can deliver the product the quickest win.”

Building stickiness into the product is also important, says Sarah Charrouf, project manager and digital marketing coordinator for Bowery Creative. “For example, Twitter found that people were more likely to stick around and actually use the service if they manually selected five to 10 accounts to 'follow' or 'friend' on the first day,” she said.

None of these tactics will work for long though, experts warn, unless that strong emotional connection is forged. “Loyalty is no longer a simple binary consideration, Maritz'z Kirk said. “It’s not just a matter of being loyal or not being loyal, but how loyal.”