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AT&T, Hyundai, Ford, Domino's, Dunkin', Google, Discover, Avis, Konica Minolta and the NFL, all maintained their #1 category positions in a challenging environment where consumer expectations have increased nearly 28% over 2014, according to the Brand Keys '2015 Customer Loyalty Engagement Index' (CLEI) survey. This article is copyright 2015 The Best Customer Guide.

Brands that were rated #1 in their categories for the first time include: Air Canada, Facebook, Kellogg's Nutri-Grain, Chipotle, Exxon Mobile, Nationwide, and Travelocity. Ratings are based on a brand's ability to meet customers' expectations better than the competition.

"In a marketplace where brands struggle to create meaningful differentiation and engagement, those better able to identify customers' expectations and address them via authentic emotional values will see bottom-line results," said Brand Keys' CEO, Robert Passikoff. "While marketers have only recently acknowledged the importance of consumers expectations, it's something Brand Keys has tracked for 20 years. Empowered and socially networked consumers have come to expect everything from brands, particularly as regards emotional gratification and engagement. That's created an environment marked by extraordinarily high levels of emotional expectations."

Meanwhile brands have managed to improve their ability to satisfy consumers' expectations by only 7% this year. Brands able to meet consumers' emotional expectations have higher engagement power, more loyal customers and greater greater sales and profits, but the difficult part is accurately measuring this gap and determining what emotional values can help a brand successfully fill it.

Two new categories - App-based Ridesharing and Breakfast Bars - were added to the 2015 CLEI survey. "We've seen high consumer interest and strong brand growth in these categories," said Passikoff, "and included them as replacements for two older categories whose players had lost any sense of differentiation to become interchangeable (Breakfast Cereals and Diapers)."

At the same time, 36 new brands appeared in the 2015 CLEI brand list. In order to get into the list, consumers simply tell Brand Keys which brands they actually use and they need to be mentioned enough times to provide a statistically generalizable sample. "A significant number of new brand mentions tells us that consumers are looking for brands that will better meet their expectations on the emotional side of the purchase equation," said Passikoff.

The 36 new brands brought this year's 2015 CLEI assessment total to 64 categories and 540 brands. New brands include: Microsoft Surface, Under Armour, Denny's, Skull Candy, Atkin's, Google Flights, Ch@t, Reddit, Pinnacle vodka, Nature's Valley, Kashi, Anthropologie, Forever 21, WestJet, Lyft, and Footlocker, plus seven hotel brands.

These were the brands with the highest levels of consumer engagement with regard to their ability to meet expectations in their respective categories (greatest engagement first):

  1. Airlines: Air Canada
  2. Allergy Medications (OTC): Claritin
  3. App-based Rideshare: Uber
  4. Athletic Footwear: Nike
  5. Automotive: Ford / Hyundai
  6. Banks: Chase
  7. Beer (Light): Sam Adams Light
  8. Beer (Regular): Sam Adams
  9. Breakfast Bars: Kellogg's Nutri-Grain
  10. Car Rental: Avis
  11. Casual/Fast Casual Dining: Chipotle
  12. Coffee (Out-of-Home): Dunkin' / Starbucks
  13. Coffee (Packaged): Dunkin'
  14. Computers (Laptops): Apple
  15. Cosmetics (Luxury): Lancome
  16. Cosmetics (Mass): L'Oreal / Mary Kay
  17. Credit Cards: American Express / Discover
  18. E-readers: Kindle
  19. Evening News: NBC
  20. Flat Screen TV: Samsung
  21. Gasoline (petrol): Exxon Mobil
  22. Headphones: Beats by Dr. Dre
  23. Hotel (Economy) Wyndham Microtel
  24. Hotel (Midscale): Best Western
  25. Hotel (Upscale): Hyatt
  26. Hotel (Luxury): Fairmont
  27. Instant Messaging Apps: WhatsApp
  28. Insurance (Car): USAA
  29. Insurance (Home): Nationwide
  30. Insurance (Life): Allstate
  31. Major League Sports: NFL
  32. Major League Video Gaming: Call of Duty
  33. MFP Office Copier: Konica Minolta
  34. Morning News: Good Morning America (ABC)
  35. Mutual Funds: American Funds
  36. Natural Food Stores: Whole Foods
  37. Online Brokerage: Scottrade.com
  38. Online Music: Pandora
  39. Online Payment Services: PayPal
  40. Online Retailers: Amazon
  41. Online Travel Site: Travelocity
  42. Online Video Streaming: Netflix
  43. Pain Relievers (OTC): Aleve
  44. Parcel Delivery: FedEx
  45. Pet Food (Cats): Purina
  46. Pet Food (Dogs): Science Diet
  47. Pizza: Domino's
  48. Price Clubs: Costco
  49. Printers: Canon
  50. Quick-Serve Restaurants: Subway
  51. Retail (Apparel): J. Crew
  52. Retail (Dept. Store): Marshall's / TJ Maxx
  53. Retail (Discount): Walmart
  54. Retail (Home Improvement): Home Depot
  55. Retail (Sporting Goods): Dick's
  56. Search Engine: Google
  57. Smartphone: Apple
  58. Social Networking Sites: Facebook
  59. Soft Drinks (Diet): Diet Coke
  60. Soft Drinks (Reg.): Coke
  61. Tablets: Apple
  62. Toothpaste: Crest
  63. Vodka: Grey Goose
  64. Wireless Phone Service: AT&T

A complete listing of the 64 categories can be found .

Emotions Drive Highest Expectations
Assessments from the 2015 Customer Loyalty Engagement Index found the gap between what consumers expect and what brands deliver is driven almost entirely by emotional values. More emotionally driven categories have higher expectations that escalate faster. More rational categories have lower expectations and are more stable.

"Marketers acknowledge consumer expectations is a new area they need to address to guarantee engagement and profitability, shifting from a 'try to do it better' approach to one of 'engage the consumer differently'. Unfortunately, without predictive emotional engagement metrics many brands try to 'shoehorn' values that they've seen work in other categories from their own. If they do that, they shouldn't be surprised when they don't work," said Passikoff.

The 2015 CLEI survey identified the following categories as having some of the highest overall consumer expectations (and the specific emotional values that can help brands better meet customers' expectations are shown in brackets):

  1. App-based Rideshare (My needs come first)
  2. Athletic Footwear (Personal innovation and performance optimization)
  3. Luxury Cosmetics (Nurturing/Optimizing my appearance)
  4. Headphones (My very personal experience)
  5. Luxury Hotels (Service I deserve)
  6. Instant Messaging Apps (The ability to matter)
  7. Smartphones (I can do anything from this phone)

"Consumer expectations always grow so being attentive to the engagement expectation gap in one's category presents a brand a real opportunity. If a marketer does something to increase a brand's engagement level they see more positive consumer behaviour in the marketplace," concluded Passikoff. "Brands that are assessed as better meeting expectations held for the Ideal always have greater market share and are more profitable than their competition. All marketers need is an accurate answer to these two simple questions: What do my customers expect, and what values will fulfil their expectations?".