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 / Fourth Quarter 1999 / Issue 17(originally published by Booz & Company)


Brand Zealots: Realizing the Full Value of Emotional Brand Loyalty

  1. Congruence with deeply rooted life themes, such as personal freedom.
  2. Accomplishment of life projects, such as college graduation or parenting.
  3. Resolution of current concerns, such as getting enough vitamins.

This characterization suggests a broad window of opportunity for creating emotional loyalty, ranging from the sublime to the mundane and from conspicuous consumption to private delight. The key to emotional loyalty seems to be less about homing in on a specific feeling or event and more about crossing major thresholds in the relationship between the consumer and the brand. (See Exhibit I.)

1 Robert M. Schindler, "The Real Lesson of New Coke: The Value of Focus Groups for Predicting the Effects of Social Influence," Marketing Research: A Magazine of Management & Applications, December 1992, pp. 22-27.

2 Susan Fournier, "Consumers and Their Brands: Developing Relationship Theory in Consumer Research," Journal of Consumer Research, March 1998, pp. 343-373.


Marketers are well trained at understanding functional motivations and have developed powerful heuristics for managing intangible elements of the brand. However, we are only beginning to understand and measure the web of feelings that underlie emotional loyalty or its impact on people's behavior. In a way, it is akin to quantifying the reasons for loving one's spouse or trying to unravel the mix of emotions that drove moviegoers to camp out for weeks to get tickets to the premiere of the "Star Wars" prequel.

Consider the way focus groups are managed. The rationale for focus groups is twofold:

  1. It is an efficient way to collect consumer feedback, since one gains multiple data points at once.
  2. The conversational flow of a focus group helps consumers to express their ideas by listening to the ideas of others.

Following these premises, focus-group facilitators are instructed to draw out every participant, aim for equal time and try to stop one vocal person from dominating the group experience.

The real world, however, has the opposite dynamics. First, militant minorities speak out as the majority usually remains silent - so a few emotional consumers can dominate the discourse with the explicit intent to convert others. Second, the media get mileage from presenting extreme views and give zealots a disproportionate share of the airwaves. Third, as cable television, radio talk shows and the Internet create endless outlets for expressing viewpoints, it becomes impossible to distinguish the minority point of view from the majority opinion. Traditional research methods are ill equipped to handle these dynamics and tend to underestimate the power of minorities, as in the New Coke example.

Marketing practitioners who suspect their brands generate significant emotional loyalty should look outside traditional research techniques to identify and understand this critically important customer group. We suggest the following rules:

Target specific research to the emotionally loyal segment instead of the general customer population

The need for specific research stems from the mathematics of this segment. Imagine a strong brand with 25 percent of its customer base characterized as "loyal" and one-third of these as "emotionally loyal." In a research project with 500 observations, emotionally loyal customers could number from 29 to 54 (at a 95 percent confidence interval). Moreover, this handful of customers may be hard to identify from simple up-front questions in a survey.

The odds are much better in research aimed at a population of loyal heavy users. Depending on the category, this could be either frequent repurchasers of a brand or long-term customers of a brand (in a sporadic purchase environment). In this group, 500 observations are likely to yield 146 to 188 emotionally loyal consumers. Still, it may be difficult to identify the emotionally loyal customers from survey questions - unless you know what to look for.

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