Human beings are social creatures. We need interaction with one another. It's the way we're made. When we meet someone new, we tend either to be drawn to them or to be disinterested for a whole host of reasons (some of which we may not even realize). Over time, however, we develop a continually evolving stable of relationships, some of which last for a lifetime.
That human dynamic is the root of brand loyalty as well. Our "relationships" with brands aren't nearly as deep or meaningful as human relationships, but they do share some of the same characteristics. The extent to which you can create a sense of belonging, friendship, and dependability between your brand and customers is the extent to which you have a powerful brand asset.
We are all members of different clubs. Our family is a club, our church is a club, our place of employment is even a club. In some sense we "belong" to each of these clubs by choice—we choose whom to marry, where to worship, and where to work because we identify with the people in them in some form or fashion. I was on the East Coast recently and saw a tourist sporting a sweatshirt from my high school across the country. I quite naturally struck up a conversation with her, as we were part of the same club.
Few people have a choice of where they go to high school, but as we get older our affiliations are increasingly a matter of preference. For example, I am a "Pepper." As a self-identified member of the Dr Pepper fraternity, I have an understanding of the brand that runs deep. (I actually think the management at Dr Pepper has never really understood what the brand means to fans like me. If you're a Pepper east of the Mississippi where the drink is scarce, you know what I mean.)
Auto brands generate a great sense of belonging as well. Ever spoken to a BMW (BMWG.DE) enthusiast about his loyalty to the brand? It's powerful. Saturn (GM) and Volkswagen (VOWG) are two other automakers that have historically done a good job of creating a sense of belonging around their brands. So has Harley-Davidson (HOG) with its Harley Owners Group. You're either in it, or you're very definitely not.
Cosmetics can also generate a strong sense of identification, as Avon (AVP) and Mary Kay loyalists can attest. So does Taos Ski Valley, a world-class destination that, because of its fabulous terrain and unique local culture, has attracted an incredible following of loyalists. (Full disclosure: Taos is a client of mine.) Bloomberg does, too. Not the mayor (although he's a fine man, I'm sure), the terminals. Ask people in the financial-services industry what it means to be part of the Bloomberg club. Better yet, try taking their Bloomberg terminal away from them—you'll lose your hand.
What drives this sense of belonging? Arguably the most important factor in branding: relevance. Brands that generate the strongest sense of tribal identity are so relevant to the wants and needs of their customers that they generate a natural gravitational pull. This is what customer loyalty programs attempt to generate (BusinessWeek.com, 5/10/07), but you can't buy a sense of belonging. It's like offering to take someone to the movies if they purchase your ticket. Companionship, yes, but friendship? Hardly. Which leads to characteristic No. 2.
Kerry Livgren, the creative genius behind the 1970s rock 'n' roll band Kansas, said it simply, and perhaps best: "The only way to have a friend is to be one." The great brands understand this. Starbucks (SBUX) has been picked on a lot lately, but it wouldn't be on such a pedestal if it didn't do a terrific job of making friends with its customers. For many people, their morning appointment with Starbucks is like visiting with a trusted old friend—familiar and comfortable.
I travel a lot, and whenever I take a morning flight out of the beautiful Albuquerque Sunport I grab a breakfast burrito from the La Hacienda kiosk inside security. Do I think about my "friendship" with this brand every time? Not at all. But whenever I go to the airport, I enjoy the familiar taste and friendly people behind the counter.
I feel the same way about my running shoes. I'm not a serious runner by any means, but I have tried a lot of different shoe brands over the years, and when I pull my trusted Avias out of the closet I know they'll do their part, as any friend would. The same is true of the little sandwich shop on the main drag in Cuba, N.M., where I take my kids to chop down our Christmas tree every year. These brands have been such good friends over the years that they now get my business almost without asking.
As with human friends, the brands we adopt as our own give us a sense of comfort and familiarity; we've come to know and trust them as opposed to the "stranger" that a competing brand represents. Our chosen brands have earned our trust through another essential aspect of branding: consistency.
Which brings up an important point—you can't force friendship. As a marketer, there's no way to compel people to feel comfortable with your brand. You can, however, take steps to initiate friendship (BusinessWeek.com, 7/13/06) and make sure that you're doing your part.
Friendships that aren't stable aren't really friendships. Sure, all relationships have their ups and downs, but one of the definitions of a true friend is someone you can count on. In the same way, brands that prove themselves dependable over time win our loyalty. Remember the old saying, "No one ever got fired for buying IBM?" The truth of that statement was rooted in IBM's reputation for dependability. IBM (IBM) may have been boring, it may have been expensive, but it was dependable, and that was important.
American Express (AXP) is another brand long known for dependability—the reason you "don't leave home without it." Same with Hertz (HTZ) ("There's Hertz and there's 'not exactly'"). Honda (HMC), in my mind, fits into this category as well. I have owned several Honda automobiles over the years, and they've been the most dependable cars in my garage. In fact, I have two in my garage now (they're even the same color—how boring is that?) Many people would say the same thing about their Toyotas (TM).
Sometimes dependability manifests itself in surprising ways. Years ago my wife and I enjoyed a vacation in Jamaica. It's a beautiful island with beautiful people and wonderful food. But if you've ever spent much time in Jamaica you can get a little tired of allspice, a flavor that tends to dominate much of the cuisine. Imagine my delight on one of our excursions when we spotted a Burger King (BKC). I knew that no matter where in the world I was I could step up to that counter and get a familiar, dependable Whopper. (Burger King's "Whopper Freakout" campaign recently highlighted this principle, using a hidden camera to capture customers' reactions to news the Whopper had been discontinued.)
Dependability isn't just the purview of computers, cars, and cheeseburgers, either. Every spring I seek out Ringer Lawn Restore, the best organic fertilizer I've ever come across. It really does what it says it will, which is a third principle of a powerful brand: credibility. Despite its natural fertilizer odor, Ringer has a friend in me.
But here's the thing about dependability. It requires time. Just as it does with human relationships, it takes time for brands to develop strong bonds with their customers. Infatuation is exciting (the basis for those late-night infomercials), but infatuation never lasts. It turns into either ambivalence or attachment depending upon how well the brand promise is delivered.
And the time factor is different for different brands. As with friendship, the more interactions your brand has with its customers the more the relationship can develop. Particularly for lower-involvement products that you buy infrequently, there can be a big forget factor (just like you may forget the name of acquaintances you don't often see).
Not long ago, I heard an ad for Lending Tree, an online mortgage company I once used to refinance my home (with a fixed rate, fortunately). Years have passed since I last refinanced and, despite being a satisfied customer, I realized that I had completely forgotten about the Lending Tree brand. The challenge for Lending Tree and other companies like it is to maintain some level of awareness and relationship with customers like me (without annoying us, of course). Brand relationships, just like human relationships, need consistent attention and upkeep in order to stay fresh and top of mind.
If you've been in business for any length of time, you must be doing something right for someone. Find out what your brand really is, and to whom it's truly meaningful. Then focus your efforts on being that in spades.
Think about the strongest brands out there: Southwest Airlines (LUV), Apple (AAPL), eBay (EBAY), even Caterpillar (CAT). They understand the principles of belonging, friendship, and dependability, and they treat their customers accordingly. They know what they stand for and refrain from chasing business that would compromise their hard-won loyalty. You can, too, and the more you do so the greater the likelihood your company may one day be mentioned in the same breath as they are.
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