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


Brand Zealots: Realizing the Full Value of Emotional Brand Loyalty

In a very real way, understanding and managing these customers requires thinking and behaving more like a politician, a sociologist or a psychologist than a marketer. While techniques from those disciplines continue to make inroads into the marketing literature, we know of few examples where they have been applied consistently to track brand emotions. This is likely to change in the next few years, as emotional loyalty continues to grow in importance as a source of brand equity and as access to the media amplifies the upside and downside of brand emotions.

3 Caryl E. Rusbult and Isabella M. Zembrodt, "Responses to Dissatisfaction in Romantic Involvements: A Multidimensional Scaling Analysis," Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 1983 (vol. 19, no. 3), pp. 274-293.


Although emotionally loyal customers exist for most brands, only a few brands, particularly in the entertainment business, seem to manage this powerful asset to the fullest. Perhaps this is because many of the "tried and true" approaches for managing unemotional customer loyalty are not appropriate for managing emotional loyalty.

One example of the counterproductivity of using widely accepted marketing techniques with emotionally loyal customers is updating or refreshing the product. For nonloyal or functionally loyal customers, it is often necessary to enhance the value of a product through functional updates (for example, incorporating the latest technology or adjusting to evolving consumer preferences). However, for emotionally loyal customers, a substantive product change can represent a fundamental threat to their relationships. In the New Coke example, this update resulted in an uproar among emotional loyals. It is easy to imagine how other conventional marketing tactics could evoke similar reactions.

The key to creating value from emotionally loyal consumers is to manage simultaneously their purchase behavior and their influence on others. The halo effect created by this small consumer segment can be used to expand the value of the brand, create line extensions or build a beachhead into other categories. In many ways, this is similar to the way politicians manage their hard-core constituencies: Winning their vote is important, but their true power lies in sending them to the streets with lawn signs, banners and leaflets. Of course, how this is done will be very different for each brand and each situation. Abstracting across many instances, we present three tantalizing examples for how a brand can capture more value from emotional loyalty.

1. Creating consumer advocates

The most sensational examples of consumer advocacy are "antis": those against a specific brand or product. Examples across the decades include strong "consumer advocacy" for prohibiting alcohol, reducing automotive hazards and banning cigarettes for children. This type of consumer advocacy is driven by small groups of people who feel strongly about an issue. Their strong feelings result in attempts to convert others, ultimately causing changes in public opinion or legislation.

Can emotionally loyal customers be equally effective in driving positive outcomes by becoming "pro" consumer advocates? In the example of the Volkswagen Beetle (see accompanying article, page 59), Apple computers and the "Star Trek" series and their fan clubs, the answer seems to be "yes." Notice that all these examples were consumer-driven, with little direct support by the company. Now companies are beginning to leverage these dynamics more directly. Saturn's customer involvement programs and Ben & Jerry's chief executive officer write-in contest represent a new breed of initiatives intended to strengthen the reservoir of emotionally loyal customers, ready to become the brand's most credible sales force and lobbying group.

2. Leveraging the brand's history

In addition to the New Beetle, nostalgia is providing substantial selling power in the automotive industry (for instance, the Volkswagen minibus, Ford Thunderbird, Chrysler 300M), entertainment (movie versions of 1960's TV shows), beverages (Coke contour bottles) and many other industries. Although nostalgia is clearly driven by many forces, emotionally loyal customers appear to play an important role in driving the success of a nostalgia product.

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