Brand Loyalty Isn’t What You Think It Is. Just Ask Twinkies.

Brand Loyalty Isn’t What You Think It Is. Just Ask Twinkies.

There’s a lot of chatter in the business world about engaging your audience, building an army of evangelists and creating that holy grail of marketing: brand loyalty.

But the more we talk about it, the more we seem to dilute it and the further the center shifts from what brand loyalty is to some vague definition based on a notion of “people doing business with us repeatedly”.

Here’s one definition I found: “The degree to which a consumer consistently purchases the same brand within a product class.”

But there are a lot of reasons we purchase the same brand and many of them have nothing to do with loyalty.

Here’s a better definition: “When consumers become committed to your brand and make repeat purchases over timeregardless of convenience or price.”

A little better, right?

But there are more reasons than price or convenience that keep us buying, and still they have nothing to do with loyalty.

Interestingly, I found what I thought was the most thoughtful definition from the Disney Institute:

While customer loyalty is defined by what people do, brand loyalty is defined by how people feel.”

Aha!

We’re onto something here. This definition touches on one of the more ethereal components of loyalty and that’s our emotional connection with a brand. Still, it leaves out quite a bit.

Definitions aside, if we’re barking up the wrong loyalty tree we could be wasting a lot of time, effort and money. To build a circle of evangelists and believers, you need to know what compels loyalty in the the first place. So here are a few things loyalty is – and a few it isn’t – so you can build true loyalty instead of just an illusion based on “repeat business”.

Brand Loyalty Is Not…

Nostalgia

Remember the day you heard that Hostess was going bankrupt and that Twinkies would cease to exist? You probably conjured up a dozen images of loving childhood Twinkie memories.

But come on, when was the last time you actually ate a Twinkie?

I’m sure there are a few diehard fans who still snack on those unnaturally spongy concoctions but for most of us, we probably haven’t seen one since our moms stuck them in our GI Joe lunchboxes.

I remember only a single occasion within the past 25 years that I bought a box of Twinkies out of sheer curiosity for a long-forgotten treat.

And I love that bizarre banana-yellow cowboy-cake-thing as much as the next guy.

Yet the moment Hostess announced its plans to shut down those Twinkie factories, the entire web ecosystem exploded with hysteria. Twitter got itself a trending hashtag and Twinkies went on sale at eBay for up to $200,000 a box (though the highest price I can confirm was paid was about $50… still!)

You would think, with all the outpouring of love and sadness and shared memories, that Hostess would have found itself instantly solvent.

Alas, no such thing happened.

Why? Because despite a veneer of “loyalty”, nobody actually wanted a Twinkie. Nobody had the particular emotional connection with Hostess that superseded everything else to drive Twinkie sales.

Twinkies were a fond if irrelevant memory and nostalgia is not the same as loyalty.

Habit

Ketchup.

Did you think immediately of any particular brand?

I’ll go out on a limb and say I bet it was Heinz. Whether you eat it or not, Heinz dominates the brand recognition test and it’s widely assumed that it’s the best ketchup on the market.

But if you’ve browsed any of the research you’ll find plenty to support the exact opposite – there are brands that beat out Heinz in taste tests every day. And in a “top 5” list, sometimes Heinz doesn’t even make the cut!

Everything from Hunts to Whole Foods, to arbitrary-local-organic-ketchup-brand wins taste tests regularly. And even though not everybody agrees on which ketchup wins, there is a distinct trend: it’s rarely Heinz.

So why is Heinz so dominant? Some might say loyalty. I argue that it has nothing to do with loyalty and everything to do with perception (powerful marketing) and habit.

Think about it: if you found a product that tastes better than the one you currently consume, wouldn’t you switch to the tastier brand? Or would you be so loyal to that first brand that you’d opt to eat something less delicious just for the sake of staying loyal?

And what if that more delicious product were also less expensive?

I’m sensing a lot of alleged loyalty going out the window.

True loyalty means sticking with a brand through thick and thin… no matter how it runs off your hamburger.

Convenience

I buy Exxon gas exclusively. I can’t remember the last time I bought anything but Exxon gas.

Ask me how loyal I am to Exxon.

Or better yet, don’t. That would just be opening a can of worms.

So why do I buy Exxon? Because I can’t spit from my front door in any direction without hitting an Exxon station. There’s one a block south, one two blocks north, one west and if I drive east I’d end up in the ocean, so there’s an argument to be made that I’d hit a little bit of Exxon there, too…

There’s a second component and it’s called “Speed Pay”. It’s that little doohickey you attach to your keychain that you swipe to buy gas, coffee, potato chips or whatever else you need from a gas station and its convenience store.

I have to laugh when a bank “thanks me for my loyalty.” I’d leave most of them in a heartbeat if it weren’t such a damn pain to switch.

Not quite the type of loyalty we’re going after, is it?

Don’t think this is only relevant to big brands, either.

We offer hosting services to our clients. But I don’t kid myself for a second thinking that customers are loyal simply because they have hosted with us for 10 years. Have you ever tried to move a website? Not so much fun! It takes time, effort and disrupts a lot of things, so it’s far more convenient for my customers to stay with me than it is for them to move their sites.

I’m not implying that we don’t have loyal customers – we do! But we have to give them a reason to be loyal and remember that what may appear to be “loyal” behavior on the surface may not be at all.

Brand Loyalty Is…

Experience

When thinking about loyalty and building it for our businesses, we need to look beyond the superficial loyalties to what really motivates people.

And one of the most important motivators is the experience we create around our products and services.

According to research presented at 360 Connext:

81% of consumers will pay more for a better customer experience.

And 92% say that a poor service experience decreases their loyalty.

I’ll give you a minute to digest that.

In essence, that’s saying you do not have to be the next Walmart to build loyalty. On the contrary you can charge more and have more loyal customers (who won’t leave you at the sight of the next sale) if you simply create a positive experience.

What else does that tell you? All obstacles aside, you don’t need to come up with tricks, gimmicks, schemes and selling points to win customer loyalty. You don’t need to falsely bind people to you by making it difficult for them to leave. You don’t need to tax your marketing department to figure out ways to build loyalty. It’s quite fundamental: all you need to do is focus on your customer.

Easier said than done! But it’s your job, especially as a small business owner whose customers have plenty of options that may be cheaper, more convenient and in other ways more attractive, to create the best possible experience for your customers.

Connection

I’m talking about an emotional connection, one that goes beyond the quality of your product or the excellence of your service.

To really create a sense of loyalty and cultivate a few evangelists, you need to tap into the irrational side of behavior.

And by “irrational” I don’t mean “crazy”. I mean the tendency of people to do business with a company even when the prices are higher, the drive is longer, the obstacles steeper, the lines six blocks long on a cold, rainy day…

Any particular company come to mind?

I’m talking about Apple, a company you can’t deny has a rabidly loyal following.

They don’t compete on price – Apple has some of the highest prices in its class.

They don’t compete on features – many argue that PCs and Android devices have more options, flexibility and customizability than any counterpart Apple product.

They don’t compete on convenience – you can’t pick up an Apple product just anywhere and seriously, have you seen those lines?

You might say they don’t compete.

Apple has successfully built a culture around innovation, creativity, uniqueness and a certain high-end counter-culture lifestyle that many people identify with. It’s a connection with a way of being and thinking that Apple users wouldn’t give up for all the free Android products shipped directly to their doors in the world, even if they came with a lifetime’s worth of free Twinkies.

So the simplicity of your task is clear: make an emotional connection with your customers. Be sure that they can identify with your brand and the lifestyle it represents.

But the practicality of how to do that is a whole lot more complex. It takes years of building that connection before it pays off. You can’t start a business and make connections as fast as you can accumulate Twitter followers.

You must have a clear vision for your business, clearly defined values and a clear mission that you communicate through every pore, every action, every word of content and every interaction with your customers.

Relevance

You might argue that poor Twinkies had made an emotional connection with its fan base.

I bet a lot of people were genuinely sad to hear about the bankruptcy. I admit I had an emotional moment as I thought about the loss of such an iconic brand.

But what Twinkies (and a large swath of other Hostess products) missed was the component of relevance.

People thought fondly of Twinkies but nobody felt particularly compelled to buy any. In an increasingly health-obsessed culture, where low-fat, low-carb, unprocessed, whole grain, no grain, vegan, gluten-free, [insert arbitrary made up health term here] has turned meal prep into label-reading drudgery, Twinkies were just that processed, fattening, sugar coma inducing snack you ate as a kid. Along with white bread, I can’t think of anything I’d be more loath to admit to eating.

Alas, our emotional connection amounted to nothing more than nostalgia.

As a business, we need to constantly reinvent ourselves to meet our customers’ needs, desires and demands. I don’t mean we need to be schizo about it – after all, Apple, that archetype of brand loyalty, reinvented the iPod in sixteen gadzillion ways (I owned three) but at its core it was still an iPod.

But the decline of Twinkies (and I’m oversimplifying here because I know there are more nuances than just loyalty) is due in large part to the fact that it relied solely on a connection it made with its customers when most of them were five years old. They failed to innovate, change or engage us in any meaningful way in our lives right now.

Brand Loyalty Is More Than Just Two Words

Many words later, what I hope you’ve taken away from this is that brand loyalty isn’t just some “thing” you can conjure up with a few incentives, a “loyalty” card and some vague talk about encouraging repeat business.

It’s not even about all that great content and the “value” you’re providing with it (gasp!) Just ask Geoff Livingston.  He makes a great point about how experience trumps content marketing which goes to the very heart of the Twinkie dilemma.

Loyalty, rather, is a mindset – giving customers what they want, when they want it. Doing it well, and building great experiences and lasting emotional connections around it. And taking the time to do it right, born from your business vision and values and not cooked up during a Tuesday marketing meeting.

You can’t turn everyone into a loyal customer, the same way you can’t be everything to everyone, the same way your target market isn’t “everyone”, the same way you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

But you can create a band of loyal evangelists for your company and brand. It’s all in how you define – and engender – loyalty.

I would love to hear your thoughts on loyalty. What is it? What isn’t it? And what are YOU doing to build it in your corner of the business world?

Carol Lynn Rivera

Carol Lynn Rivera

I'm a business owner, content creator, podcaster and marketer. In 1999 I founded Rahvalor Interactive, a web and creative services production studio, with my husband and business partner Ralph. In 2011 we created Web.Search.Social, a consulting and marketing service line for small businesses. We also cohost the Web.Search.Social Podcast where we challenge the status quo of marketing and the Carbon Based Business Units podcast where we talk about the human side of being an entrepreneur. On any given day I wear the hat of project manager, consultant, social media manager and content marketer. My true passion is writing and in my spare time I'm busy planning my early retirement to Barcelona as a famous and wealthy novelist.
Carol Lynn Rivera
Carol Lynn Rivera
  • Love this post, Carol Lynn. And yes, content marketing is NOTHING if you don’t bake in some EXPERIENCE. Especially now that there’s a tsunami of content on the interwebz for us to consume. Sharing this one far and wide.

    • Why thank you! It’s true, there is a ton of content now that everyone is on the content marketing bandwagon. That doesn’t make it all good… but even the good stuff could be missing the point. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • This was a fantastic article! Brand loyalty is so much more than schemes and points and thank yous. It’s about making people feel good.

    I absolutely loved this line!

    “So why do I buy Exxon?…There’s one a block south, one two blocks north, one west and if I drive east I’d end up in the ocean, so there’s an argument to be made that I’d hit a little bit of Exxon there, too…”

    • Thanks Alex, I appreciate your kind words. Loyalty is NOT that punch card you’re stuck with on your keychain! Good lesson for big and small brands too. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  • Excellent post and discussion of what brand loyalty is and isn’t. I also love the photo of the dog. Who could resist that face?

    • Thank you Erin. I considered putting some Twinkies in it but then thought that might be a bad idea 🙂

  • Jeannie Walters

    Great breakdown of loyalty. Twinkies are a perfect example.

    • Thank you! Funny how these things start to percolate in our brains 🙂

  • A.K. Andrew

    Really great post. Very thorough & very true. You almost compare loyalty with the way people buy a house. It’s an emotional response – along with a bunch if other factors which you covered. But the emotional aspect is slightly intangible. In business the word trust is part of this equation. Takes years to build but can be lost in a heartbeat. Thank you for the post.

    • Totally right – we do buy based on emotion and it’s not always something we can explain but that connection is really important. And yes, just as easy to lose! Glad you enjoyed, thanks for reading!

  • Chery Schmidt

    WOW What a Great Post Carol. You sure have a way with words Yep about those twinkies?? I was sad but like you said I cannot remember the last time I had one either HUM?? Thanks for sharing Chery 🙂

    • They were kind of gross, last I remember 🙂 But we miss them anyway!

  • You really got me thinking about brand loyalty Carol. I am
    loyal to some brands (like Heinz) possibly because it evokes childhood memories
    of my grandmother but I’m not loyal to any brand of gas. Instead, I fill up my
    tank at one of two small full serve stations. I try to keep the “little guy” in
    business as much as I can and I try to avoid the big-box stores as much as
    possible. Actually, now that I’m thinking of it, I think I’m being loyal to my idea
    of the American dream and I attempt to steer clear of big companies if I can. Great post!

    • That’s an interesting perspective Sherryl – loyal to an idea and not a particular company. I can see where you’re coming from. I too would rather support local and small business. As for Heinz I think maybe you’re loyal to the idea of your grandmother and childhood more than ketchup!

      I would hardly say I’m “loyal” to Exxon. It’s just that I can’t escape them and I’d have to go pretty far out of my way to shop somewhere else. So on the surface it may seem that way but it’s not.

      I like your idea of sticking with small biz!

  • What an interesting read, once again, Carol!

    You are so right when you’re saying that loyalty is in many cases convenience and trying to avoid a headache. As I was reading I was thinking that I’ve stuck with some products/services for that reason and that reason only. I wasn’t being loyal, just didn’t want the headache.

    As far as the Apple people, well, I’m not one bit affected by whatever it is that hit them on the head. I am the one that would never go further, or wait longer outside on a rainy day for anything, Apple, pear or strawberry 🙂 Yes, Apple may lead in innovation, creativity and uniqueness, but as for me I don’t care. I wouldn’t be the type of people to bring business to those folks.

    Thanks for this very interesting topic!

    • There are plenty of companies we stick with because it’s either habit or too much of a pain to switch. Banks, insurance companies, phone companies… And it’s not loyalty, because if we really thought about it we would leave.

      So you’re not an Apple groupie 🙂 Well, they certainly haven’t converted everyone but the people who love them REALLY love them. That’s why they wait on those lines and go crazy every time they hear there’s a new phone. So for Apple, they have done their job right for those people.

      I’m glad you found this interesting. It was running around in my head and I just decided it was time to come out 🙂

  • Carol, this is one the best deep dives into the nature of loyalty that I have come across in some time. Well done – thanks for sharing.

    So many companies struggle to create loyalty in their customer bases and don’t always “get it” that loyalty is an emotional decision. If the emotional connection isn’t made, you can create a satisfied customer, but satisfied customers aren’t necessarily loyal, and it’s loyalty that moves the needle on the bottom line.

    Companies have to know how to connect on an emotional level with the customer in order get the company’s brand promise out there where it can actually benefit the company and make a real difference. What good is a brand promise that never makes it out of the C-Suite, advertisements or marketing materials?

    • That’s a great point Scott – a satisfied customer isn’t always a loyal customer. That’s quite true and a little bit scary for us to think about, right? We go to great lengths sometimes to please people, provide great customer service, etc… and all those happy people may just leave us in a heartbeat. Good lesson for businesses who want to build loyalty. You’ve got to make that emotional connection.

  • Donna Merrill

    Carol,

    I so enjoyed reading this post. I can identify with being a loyal Apple customer. It is not only the bells and whistles, but I can go to the Apple store and get help. The service is amazing. I know I am spending more, but I’m treated like a queen. So there goes that emotional feeling inside when I walk into an Apple Store. Everything is high tech, the service is amazing and I get all the help I need.

    With my off line business, people tell me that they will only come to me because I give them extra time if they need it, if there is an emergency, I’m on call for them. I treat them so well, they feel like me going into the Apple store. So, I guess that’s my “brand” isn’t it?

    Donna

    • You’re right, and that goes right to the heart of one of those stats: people will pay more for a better experience! You know you can walk in there, people will know what you’re talking about, how to help you and make you feel like you’re the only person in the world that matters.

      Sounds like part of your brand too, for sure. You give people the attention they need so you create that emotional connection and people know they can rely on you. You are the Apple store of your industry 🙂

  • Raena Lynn

    Hi Carol,

    Wow, what a post! The first product I thought about was Best Foods mayonnaise. I wondered why have I continued to choose it over other brands since my childhood? I won’t buy any other mayo and I usually skip it when I don’t have a choice….gee I sound spoiled! I understand your explanation of loyalty so I had to wonder, am I loyal when it comes to mayo? I’ve attempted to switch many times for less expensive brands, or out of curiosity to see if anything out there tastes better. Truth? I can’t find any mayonnaise that I prefer over Best Foods. After reading your article, I believe it is only because I’m used to the taste…emotional connection? The fact that I was willing to try and switch proves that I am not really that loyal!

    Using ketchup as an example, obviously Heinz has proven its power of marketing, so it was the first ketchup brand that popped into my head. It isn’t the brand I buy. Thinking is not the same as buying. The buying comes with emotion, and sometimes selfish emotions such as convenience and connection win!

    You defined loyalty as “Loyalty, rather, is a mindset – giving customers what they want, when they want it. Doing it well, and building great experiences and lasting emotional connections around it.” That is a tall order for any business, large or small…offline or online considering the competition out there. Thanks for clearing up any misconceptions.

    I loved the brilliance of using Twinkies and Apple as examples to illustrate your points. Thanks Carol Lynn 🙂

    Raena Lynn

    • I’m glad that I could get you thinking 🙂 I would say that you have a personal preference for your mayo, which is certainly common. There are certain things I buy because they’re just the best. But loyalty doesn’t really play a role because if something better came along I would switch, and I bet you would too.

      Convenience is definitely a reason to buy, but also not loyalty!

      I know that building loyalty IS a tall order. It’s not easy because if it were, every business would be doing it well, right? It takes years, it takes building up your business around a set of principles that are meaningful to your customers. Definitely not something you wake up one day and add to your to-do list.

      You can’t even expect customers to be loyal even if they’ve done business with you for years. It could be they didn’t have any better options. The point is that we really have to work HARD for that kind of loyalty and we have to work to keep it. But when someone is loyal, they will choose us even when something is cheaper, more convenient or easier.

  • This is an excellent post! A few weeks ago, I wrote about my crush on JetBlue, and the reasons I stated for feeling the way I do, were all covered in your post. It has taken 10 years of experience and relationship building to grow my loyalty to that particular airline. The Supremes were correct: “You Can’t Hurry Love.”

    • Good one, Jennifer! Ten years seems like a long time to us when we’re in the trenches and we want those loyal customers now – but ten years or not, some businesses still don’t get it right. And others like Jet Blue do.

  • Adrienne

    Oh girl, you hit the nail on the head here.

    I remember when they announced Hostess going bankrupt I didn’t go nuts. Heck, I didn’t even like Twinkies. Yeah, they taste like a sponge and the only product of Hostess that I really like are their small little donuts. I know but they’re good. Not something I regularly buy or eat for that matter.

    Now reading through the examples you shared with us here I seriously was thinking to myself I’m not “loyal” to any brand. I go for the experience. If I’m treated well every time I step into a specific store then I’ll go out of my way to visit that particular store.

    The brand I might be partial to if I’ve had issues with their product in the past and they jumped through hoops to correct it for me and make my experience a pleasurable one. I think this stems from dealing with vendors for years in my corporate job so I wanted to be treated the way I think a customer should “if” you want my loyalty.

    Girl, this post made me think. I mean really think so that’s what I’m sticking with at least. Thanks Carol, you always make me think.

    ~Adrienne

    • That’s exactly what brands and businesses have to remember, Adrienne. It’s our experiences that matter. If they create positive experiences, if they treat us well and provide good service, then we’ll remember that and we’re more likely to do business with them.

      I’m probably a lot more loyal to small and local businesses than big brands. It would take a LOT for a big brand to get me to be loyal and most really don’t do anything besides put out a lot of TV ads 🙂 I’ll do business with someone I like over someone I don’t, and someone small and local to some giant company any day.