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


Brand Zealots: Realizing the Full Value of Emotional Brand Loyalty

Perhaps the best way to identify these users is to work from the definition backward. As suggested earlier, the emotionally loyal tend to exhibit disproportionate actions toward the brand. What better place to understand people's fascination with "Star Trek" than at a Trekkie convention? In today's environment, Internet sites can provide a powerful vehicle to identify the Trekkie equivalents for most branded goods. Once the behaviors and motivations of emotional customers are better understood, it is much easier to aim research toward this group or to segment this group in more traditional heavy-user studies.

Seek to directly understand their likely response pattern

When emotionally loyal consumers are the focus, response to changes in the brand can often be unpredictable. Testing directly how users will react is of critical importance to securing their allegiance and preventing unforeseen trouble. The best frameworks to understand these responses come, not surprisingly, from social psychology.

 A 1983 study of human relationships3 led to defining four basic ways in which people respond to relationship problems, as well as the causal mechanisms that led people to take different kinds of actions. Through a series of rigorous statistical analyses, the researchers sought to define what drove participants in a relationship to one of four response categories. From their research, we can draw the following lessons to help map respon-ses of emotionally loyal consumers to changes in a brand:

  • When presented with significant negative changes (in the eyes of the consumer), emotionally loyal consumers are about equally likely to respond vocally or to consciously avoid the brand ("walk away") - and are highly unlikely to behave passively.
  • Highly satisfied consumers are likely to be the most vocal, either to support the change or to correct what they perceive as a wrong. They are the least likely to walk away.
  • Consumers who have made significant personal investments in the brand (for instance, emotional investments like belonging to a fan club or resource investments like purchasing a luxury item) are also likely to be vocal and unlikely to walk away.
  • At the time of a change, emotionally loyal consumers are highly vulnerable to being seduced by other brands.

Tailor the research to test response individually and in a group setting

Ongoing studies and topical analysis of brand events are required to manage emotional consumers. Once emotionally loyal consumers have been identified, in-depth qualitative research should yield the most insight. For ongoing research, traditional techniques such as panel discussions and diary writing probably yield the best information. The objective of the research should be to understand sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, both to educate the company on how to serve loyal customers and to hypothesize novel approaches to leverage this powerful customer group.

Topical research with emotionally loyal customers, on the other hand, should focus on understanding both how they would respond to an event involving the brand and whether the changes would be widely accepted by other consumers. To understand reactions, Professor Schindler, who studied New Coke, suggests using one-on-one interviews to assess whether the change will be viewed as positive or negative. We suggest enhancing those learnings with careful analysis of the characteristics of the pre-change relationship between the consumer and the brand, which can offer clues as to whether the real- world response is likely to be militant or passive.

Perhaps the larger question in these cases is whether the reaction will create a groundswell or just remain confined to a small group. As in the New Coke example, focus groups can be used to test the level of diffusion of the emotional response. We suggest running the groups with different mixes of participants (all emotionally loyal, emotionally loyal customers in the minority and none emotionally loyal) and instructing the facilitators to let strong participants drive the group at times - perhaps even fanning the flames in the way a news anchor does.

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