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Published: October 1, 1999

 
 

Brand Zealots: Realizing the Full Value of Emotional Brand Loyalty

By the mid-1990's, Nike was the favorite shoe of 77 percent of male Americans aged 18 to 25. In this context, loyalty to the Nike brand is driven by many factors. Most likely, some consumers are attracted to Nike for "good shoe" product functionality; others value the athletic aspiration, and still others view Nike and its pantheon of icons and badges as a friend or even a religion. Recent Nike campaigns seem to consciously cultivate this last group by championing key sports issues that have broader societal relevance (for instance, the value of female athletics). The brand's evolution to "person" or more is the essence of emotional loyalty.

To be more precise, emotional loyalty occurs on one of two pathways, each with its own threshold. On the first pathway, emotional loyalty is born out of a consumer's personal relationship with a brand. This relationship may very well start through the satisfaction of a functional need (for example, a car's reliability) or an expressiveness need (for example, a fashion designer's prestige). Consumers cross the threshold from a mere brand relationship into emotional loyalty when they "animate" the brand, giving it quasi-human qualities and relating to it in the same way they relate to human beings. This was probably the basis on which some Coke consumers felt betrayed by the formula change.

The second pathway to emotional loyalty is the formation of a strong user community around the brand. On this pathway, the consumer crosses the threshold to emotional loyalty when membership in the brand's user community becomes an end in itself. Thus, the brand becomes a nexus for people for whom fulfilling similar aspirations is a major life theme, as is the case in Harley-Davidson motorcycle clubs.

On either pathway - the personal relationship or the creation of a community - crossing the threshold into emotional loyalty leads to a deeper, almost irreplaceable, bond as well as to the potential for negative feelings of betrayal or infidelity. Emotionally loyal consumers relate to the brand as they might to other human beings - feeling affection, a common history, possibly a sense of trust and two-way commitment, which goes well beyond the satisfaction of a specific need.

There are a number of very important elements in emotional loyalty, which may not be obvious at first glance. First, most brands have some proportion of emotionally loyal consumers within their franchise. As the Nike example shows, brand loyalty segments emerge from diverse consumer responses to the complex amalgam of value proposition, brand positioning and environmental factors. Even in categories largely dominated by economic considerations, like the purchase of a heavy-duty truck, companies like Kenworth and Peterbilt command significantly higher margins by carefully managing their public images and developing emotional loyalty from independent truckers.

Second, it would also be wrong to assume that it is either necessary or sufficient for brands to communicate an emotional message to develop emotional loyalty. Apple's customers provide an example of emotional loyalty that developed without an emotional message. Early Apple user communities were founded in the late 1970's to enable enthusiasts to share product experiences and ideas. These user groups, a prime indication of emotional loyalty, formed long before Apple began pursuing emotionally laden advertising efforts. In fact, Apple's most famous emotional message, the "1984" commercial, was not broadcast until five years after early user communities appeared. As is true with any personal relationship or community, words alone are insufficient to develop strong emotional loyalty.

Third, there is no one pattern or sequence for forming emotional loyalty. Prof. Susan Fournier of Harvard University describes three broad types of seeds for the development of emotional relationships with brands:2

 
 
 
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