No one in marketing would dispute the importance of customer loyalty to a brand or product. It leads to repeat sales and indicates that the consumer holds the brand in high regard. And if a consumer is loyal to a brand or product, he or she will recommend it to others, thereby increasing the customer base. So it behoves brands and marketers to understand what underlies brand loyalty, according to Joel Weinberger of Implicit Strategies, who here explains what loyalty mean to customers, and how marketers can more effectively assess it. This article is copyright 2014 The Best Customer Guide.

The act of assessing customer loyalty is perhaps obvious, to begin with. We can ask consumers to define the concept and then ask them to assess how loyal they are to a brand/product. This can produce important information. But that is not all there is to loyalty. Loyalty is an emotional concept with strong 'unconscious' components as well. These are not measurable through direct report.

People conceptualise loyalty associatively as well as cognitively and rationally. And they are largely unaware of those associations. These associations nonetheless affect their feelings and reactions to brands. A classic example is Classic versus New Coke (pun intended). The research in support of New Coke was all self-report. It did not take into account the associations that people had to Classic Coke and the emotional attachment people had to those associations. As a result, a major mistake was made.

Measuring the unconscious
So how do we assess unconscious associations? One way is by measuring reaction time We present associations that we think ought to be triggered by the concept we are trying to understand associatively. These include positive as well as negative associations. We then ask people to react to them and measure their response times. For example, we can present words or phrases in various colours and ask people to click on the matching colour but to ignore the word/phrase.

The longer it takes the respondent to identify the correct colour, the more the word/phrase captured their attention and delayed them from clicking on the colour. This delay is not long; it can be just 1/100th of a second, or even less. But it is measurable and it is meaningful. The advantage of this method over others is that the results are scalable and the testing can be done relatively quickly and employ large numbers of respondents. Further, the associations can be assessed in terms of their relative strengths.

A study of loyalty
Implicit Strategies, in collaboration with IPSOS Canada, recently conducted a study for the Marketing Store designed to understand the unconscious associations underlying brand loyalty. Amy Charles (of IPSOS) and I will present these results at the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association (MRIA) this June, in Saskatchewan, Canada.

"We generated fifteen possible associations and tested them using the methodology described above. Without going into details, here is what we found: People in general, associate loyalty with love, trust, reliability, and friendship. To be loyal is to love another and to be a friend one can count on. There is also a dark side to loyalty. Part of being loyal is a fear of change. We are sometimes loyal because the alternative is frightening. We fear the unknown; we fear risk. We can generate a template for a loyalty message as well as a template for overcoming loyalty should we want to introduce something to supplant an 'old reliable' brand or service."

Pro loyalty
This product/brand is your friend - you can rely on it. You love it and it loves you. Why would you want to try anything else? Why take a chance when what you have is so reliable, friendly and loving?

Overcoming loyalty
Anything good you know now was once an example of change. Naturally, you are hesitant, even fearful, but you have to overcome your fears if you are to move forward. Once you do so, you will come to love and trust your new, reliable, friend (brand).

Men and women aren't the same
Although there is general consistency across consumers, there are also gender differences in loyalty at the associative level. And these make sense. In fact, the results fit neatly into the paradigm innovated by the sociolinguist and best-selling author Deborah Tannen. For women, loyalty is about trust, devotion, and commitment. Female loyalty is an interpersonal affair.

For men loyalty is a matter of honour, a contractual commitment. Male loyalty is about doing the right thing. This means that marketing loyalty to men and women needs to take a different approach. Marketing designed to enhance loyalty targeted at women should emphasize trust. Marketing designed to enhance loyalty targeted at men should emphasize obligation.

Marketing designed to overcome loyalty and to introduce something new or to encourage a switch should, address betraying a relationship for women and breaking an obligation for men. These are the issues that need to be overcome if the goal of the marketing effort is to effect a change.

Conclusion
Loyalty need not be the mysterious entity it seems to have become. In addition to directly asking about what motivates and maintains loyalty, we can also look beneath the surface to discover how people conceptualise loyalty unconsciously. We can then leverage these insights to enhance (or weaken) loyalty among our consumers.