The interaction of mobile and socially networked consumer empowerment, along with perpetual price promotions and discounting have reached saturation to produce the highest level of emotional consumer expectations for products and services in two decades, up nearly 30%, but brands' ability to meet those expectations has increased only 6%, according to the 18th annual Brand Keys 2014 Customer Loyalty Engagement Index (CLEI). This article is copyright 2014 The Best Customer Guide.

Brands appearing at the top of the 2014 Brand Keys survey included: Apple (displaced in the 2013 CLEI in the Tablet and Smartphone categories, has smartly come back this year), AT&T, Hyundai, Ford, Domino's, Dunkin', Google and the NFL, which maintained top position in each of their respective categories.

"Brands that are able to meet - sometimes even exceed - consumers' emotional and rational expectations have more loyal customers, higher engagement power, greater profitability and market power," said Robert Passikoff, president for Brand Keys. "The difficult part, of course, is accurately measuring consumer expectations."

Brands that appeared in their categories for the first time included: Panera, Chipolte, USAA and Twitter. "As years of research have shown, consumers make purchasing decisions based on a synthesis of rational and emotional values related to the product category. But today, meaningful differentiation is based more on the ability to leverage emotional category-specific values by better meeting expectations," noted Passikoff.

"Consumers do not buy computers the way they buy cars, so you can't trade away category specificity for cross-category generalities. Actually many brands do, but they usually end up with averages, which are poor indicators of how people will behave - 'behave' being the operative word if you're looking for success in today's marketing world," said Passikoff.

The brands with highest levels of consumer engagement and expectations in their respective categories were as follows (with percentages indicating the degree to which a brand met expectations, versus a consumer-generated, category-specific ideal of 100%)...

  1. Airline: JetBlue (81%)
  2. Allergy Medications (OTC): Claritin (88%)
  3. Athletic Footwear: Nike (91%)
  4. Automotive: Ford/Hyundai (93%)
  5. Bank: JP Morgan Chase (90%)
  6. Beer (Light): Coors Light/ Sam Adams Light (95%)
  7. Beer (Regular): Coors/Sam Adams (90%)
  8. Breakfast Cereal: Cheerios (93%)
  9. Car Insurance: USAA (92%)
  10. Car Rental: AVIS (90%)
  11. Casual/ Fast-Casual Dining: Panera (90%)
  12. Coffee
    Dunkin' Donuts (96%)
  13. Computer (Laptops): Apple (95%)
  14. Cosmetics (Luxury): Lancôme (93%)
  15. Cosmetics
    L'Oreal (84%)
  16. Credit Card: Discover / American Express (90%)
  17. Diapers: Pampers (96%)
  18. E-Readers: Kindle (96%)
  19. Evening News Shows: NBC (92%)
  20. Flat Screen TV: Samsung (98%)
  21. Gasoline: Shell (88%)
  22. Headphones
    Beats by Dr. Dre /Sony (91%)
  23. Hotel (Luxury): Ritz-Carlton (93%)
  24. Hotel (Upscale): Hyatt (87%)
  25. Hotel (Midscale): Holiday Inn (84%)
  26. Hotel (Economy): Super 8 (83%)
  27. Insurance (Life): New York Life (82%)
  28. Insurance (Home): USAA (84%)
  29. Instant Messaging Apps: WhatsApp (90%)
  30. Major League Gaming Video: Call of Duty - Ghosts (92%)
  31. Major League Sports: National Football League (94%)
  32. MFP Office Copier: HP/Konica Minolta (83%)
  33. Morning News Show
    Good Morning, America (ABC) (87%)

  1. Mutual Funds
    T. Rowe Price / Vanguard (80%)
  2. Natural Food Stores: Whole Foods (90%)
  3. Online Brokerage: Options Xpress (86%)
  4. Online Music: Pandora (90%)
  5. Online Payment Services: PayPal (90%)
  6. Online Retailers: Amazon (93%)
  7. Online Travel Sites: Expedia (87%)
  8. Online Video Streaming: Netflix / Amazon (88%)
  9. Packaged Coffee
    Dunkin' (96%)
  10. Pain Reliever (OTC): Aleve (90%)
  11. Parcel Delivery: UPS (90%)
  12. Pet Food (Canned) for Cats: Purina (94%)
  13. Pet Food (Canned) for Dogs: Science Diet (91%)
  14. Pizza
    Domino's (89%)
  15. Printers: Canon (94%)
  16. Quick-Serve Restaurants: Subway (93%)
  17. Retail Store (Apparel)
    Victoria's Secret (81%)
  18. Retail Store (Department)
    Macy's (80%)
  19. Retail Store (Discount): Walmart (93%)
  20. Retail Store (Home Improvement): Home Depot (87%)
  21. Retail Store (Price Clubs)
    Sam's Club (94%)
  22. Retail Store (Sporting/Recreational Goods)
    Dick's (83%)
  23. Search Engine: Google (85%)
  24. Smartphones: Apple (81%)
  25. Social Networking Sites: Facebook /Twitter (77%)
  26. Soft Drinks (Diet): Diet Coke (89%)
  27. Soft Drink (Regular): Coke (88%)
  28. Tablets: Amazon/Apple (90%)
  29. Toothpaste: Colgate (94%)
  30. Vodka: Grey Goose (90%)
  31. Wireless Phone Service: AT&T (80%)

Assessments from the 2014 Customer Loyalty Engagement Index found that overall consumer expectations increased by 30%, while individual brands have only grown 6%. "Even without a statistical app, it's clear that the gap between what consumers expect and what brands deliver is growing larger," said Passikoff.

Categories that are more emotionally-driven are likely to have higher expectations that increase faster. More rational categories have lower expectations and move more slowly: "The penalty for process re-engineering and the delivery of same-as-same-as products and services, viewed as identical except for the name on the package or the website," noted Passikoff.

This year's CLEI survey identified 12 categories as having the highest overall consumer expectations and, following in parentheses, the category driver(s) where consumers have the highest expectations:

  1. Instant Messaging Apps (Comprehensive, Sophisticated, Most Up-To-Date Features);
  2. Social Networking Sites (Multi-Functional Connectivity);
  3. Smartphones (Apps/Camera/AV/Multimedia Technology) and Tablets (Brand Value & Support);
  4. Natural Food Stores (Wide Range of Healthy, Sustainable Organic Foods);
  5. Online Video Streaming;
  6. Wireless Phone & Data Services (Wide Range of Original and Current Entertainment + Extensive Library);
  7. Mutual Funds (Fund Success);
  8. Luxury Hotels (Brand Reputation & 5-star Ratings) and Luxury Cosmetics (Makes Me Feel Good and Look Good);
  9. Online Retailers (Trust and Security);
  10. Retail Apparel Stores (Brand Buzz).

"Expectations grow most of the time," said Passikoff. "But the rate of growth varies by category. So expectations about technology grow faster than breakfast cereal. What marketers need is the answer to the question, how high is 'up' when it comes to expectations in my category?"

So being attentive to the engagement expectation gap presents brands with a real opportunity: "If you can do something that increases a brand's engagement level you'll see more positive consumer behavior in the marketplace. Always," concluded Passikoff. "And brands that are assessed as better meeting expectations held for the Ideal have larger market shares and are always more profitable than the competition. Always."

Methodology
For the Brand Keys 2014 survey, 32,000 consumers aged 18-65 were drawn from the nine US Census Regions, self-selected the categories in which they are consumers, and the brands for which they are customers. Some 70% were interviewed by telephone, 25% were interviewed face-to-face (to include mobile phone-only households), and 5% participated in the survey online.

Assessments were based on a research technique that fuses rational and emotional aspects of the categories to identify the behavioral drivers for each category-specific Ideal, and identifies the attributes, benefits, and values that form the components of each driver. The Ideal describes a precise path-to-purchase, describing how the consumer will view the category, how they will compare brands and, ultimately how they will engage with the brand, buy, and remain loyal. Then the assessments measure how well brands meet expectations consumers hold for each driver that makes up the Ideal for a specific category.

Seven new categories (Fast Casual Dining, Online Music, Instant Messaging Apps, Online Video Streaming, Online Payment Services, Headphones, and Insurance) were added to the 2014 CLEI survey, to replace older categories whose commoditized brands had lost any real differentiation and had basically become interchangeable.