Affinity less critical than a presence

Consumers’ feelings towards the brands they buy may not be as strong as previously thought. Many people repeat a purchase simply because it is convenient to do so. However, Alan Mitchell suggests that the great brands are capable of exploiting

When politicians start talking about unity you can be sure their party is divided. When marketers start talking about loyalty, it’s a pretty good hint that they’re losing it. In sector after sector, marketers fear that brand loyalty is fading.

The supermarkets with the highest brand loyalty nowadays can command, on average, only half their customers’ total grocery spending. Financial services marketers used to joke that their customers were more likely to get divorced than change bank accounts. They don’t any more. Car companies fret over the fact that even if the owner is satisfied with his current model, chances are he’ll still buy another brand next time round.

The consequential rise of loyalty marketing has unearthed many valuable insights. We now know, for example, that a tiny proportion of a firm’s customers are likely to account for a high proportion of its profits, and that keeping old customers is often more profitable than trying to acquire new ones.

But has the loyalty pendulum swung too far? A suggestion that it is now coming from a most unlikely quarter: a man who has built a global franchise among blue-chip companies measuring consumers’ strength of feeling towards their brands.

Jan Hofmeyr’s initial interest was far removed from brands and marketing. What fascinated him was religion, in particular the process of religious conversion. In a PhD study of the conversion of a large number of Hindus to Christianity in his home province of Natal, South Africa, he came up with an intriguing insight.

The alignment of a brand (whether it’s religious, political or commercial) to its consumer’s needs and values is only part of the loyalty equation, he argued. What also matters is the degree of involvement and commitment.

If your involvement is minimal it’s easy for you to walk away – even if you are satisfied with what you get. If you are deeply involved, it is hard to break free – even when you are dissatisfied.

Thus, satisfied customers defect. And lovers walk away from low commitment but extremely satisfying one night flings without batting an eyelid. But they stay trapped in unhappy marriages for decades.

Hofmeyr’s research in religion, politics (he advises Nelson Mandela and the ANC on elections) and for brand clients such as Coca-Cola, Levi’s and Shell, all points to the same conclusion: truly robust brands not only satisfy their customers, they also involve them.

Deliberately or not, consciously or not, many strands of modern marketing recognise this. Relationship and one-to-one marketing, which seek to engage customers in a continuing dialogue; sponsorship programmes, which help customers indulge their enthusiasms through the good offices of the brand; communication strategies like Tango’s, which engage customers in the fun of the advertising game; attempts by consultancies like Imagination to “dimensionalise” brand experiences through initiatives like Cadbury World; affinity and good cause marketing – they all seek to pull customers up that involvement curve.

But in pondering the implications of his research across the globe, Hofmeyr himself has gone through something of a conversion.

The hard fact is that “strength of feeling for a brand doesn’t necessarily translate into behaviour”, he now concedes.

While at first sight the conversion model chimes with everything loyalty marketers say, he notes that a common characteristic of most brands is that a high proportion of their customers never do get involved.

Despite the best efforts of their marketers, ultimately consumers don’t care whether they have Coke or Pepsi, Ford or Vauxhall, Shell or BP, Tesco or Sainsbury’s. They are quite happy to switch at the drop of a hat.

There is plenty of evidence to support this. In his book All Consumers Are Not Created Equal, for instance, Ogilvy & Mather’s Garth Hallberg points to major and “stable” US brands like YopleX, which in one year lost 45 per cent of its old users and gained 51 per cent of new customers (who accounted for 54 per cent of its sales volume).

RSGB’s Trevor Richards (who applies the conversion model in the UK) cites the example of a major coffee brand where about 40 per cent of its sales in a 12-week period came from people who were either new to the brand or confirmed repertoire buyers.

However, according to Hofmeyr, far from being a problem, the presence of such large numbers of uninvolved consumers may be brands’ saving grace.

If marketers can make the process of purchase simple and convenient, these low involvement types are wont to repeat it simply because it minimises their investment of time and energy.

Buying the brand then becomes “a comfortable habit” which can be almost impossible to break. For example, 60 per cent of the coffee brand’s purchasers bought only that brand over the 12-week period.

This is the power of presence marketing, Hofmeyr suggests. “These instances of high loyalty but low commitment are driven by basic presence. Presence is the number one factor, affinity number two.” Indeed, he goes further, suggesting that “the basic thing that creates a support level for brands is the presence of uninvolved consumers”.

It goes against the grain for marketers to accept that one reason why some brands are very powerful is because many of their consumers are basically utterly indifferent to them. And it’s not necessarily a happy thought that, compared with presence, loyalty-based marketing strategies are a recipe for smallness (compare Microsoft with Apple, for example).

But the underlying assumption behind loyalty marketing – that success depends on getting closer to your customer on an emotional, psychological or information exchanging basis – may be only half the truth, and the lesser half at that. Getting closer physically and operationally is often what really counts.

Great brands are the ones that do both. They capitalise on any commitment they can generate. And they also exploit indifference, inertia – and presence – for all it is worth. Lesser brands, on the other hand, hope that by pursuing one they can afford to forget the other.

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