News & Views

Opinion / Brand’s Best Friend

by Kate Hollowood

Christmas has come early at the Contagious office. Not because Most Contagious went well last week, or because M&S has just launched a stone-less avocado, but because the latest member to join our family is a miniature schnauzer named Colonel Buttons. 

As you can imagine, within a few weeks she has become the most faithful, adoring pooch that her owner and our editorial director Alex could ever have hoped for. This got me thinking about how rare it is to see that kind of undying loyalty within a human. And with many people struggling to be loyal to their workplaces, religions or relationships, how could we ever expect them to behave loyally towards a brand? 

Over the last few months, I put this question to several experts while researching brand loyalty for an article in our latest magazine. Some people I spoke to believe it’s near impossible to achieve dog-like loyalty from your customers – such as behaviourists like the Ehrenberg-Bass’ Institute’s Professor John Dawes. He believes that brands need to focus on repeat purchasing behaviour, instead. ‘Attitudinal loyalty tends to reflect past behaviour, not future,’ he told me.

I discovered that brand loyalty ‘essentialists’ think otherwise. ‘It goes beyond the transactional relationship and is an emotional sense of connection with that brand,’ says Rachel Barton, managing director of advanced customer strategy at Accenture.

But one thing everybody seems to agree on is that traditional brand loyalty schemes are dog-tired. Customers have evolved and being able to collect loyalty points in exchange for discounts is not enough to make a brand stand out. Reflecting the overarching shift in consumer preferences for experiences, recent studies show that customers are more motivated by experiential rewards than material ones.

This shift is neatly illustrated by UK broadcaster Sky, which has revamped its own loyalty programme to offer benefits that make the customer experience feel more premium. Sky VIP rewards customers according to their tenure rather than spend with benefits including tickets to gigs and a priority customer service phone line. ‘[Driving loyalty through experience] is about how a brand interacts with a customer at every touch point,’ says Richard Blanshard, MD and partner at London-based agency Venturethree which helped design Sky VIP.

Through my interviews, I found out that rewarding customers experientially is less about making big, grand gestures and more about showing the customer you care throughout their engagement. ‘The brands who are baking loyalty mechanics right into the customer experience are the ones that are really capturing attention,’ says Sean Claessen, EVP of strategy and innovation at Bond Brand Loyalty. The good news is that there are many more ways to make experiences interesting and different compared to discounts.