A sense of belonging can reap rewards

People would rather brands treat them more like club members than customers and there are long-term benefits from listening to what they have to say.

Brands are failing to leverage the power of treating people more like club members rather than just customers, according to research exclusive to Marketing Week. Knowing that brands will listen to feedback is key for the study’s 2,000 respondents yet only 22 per cent of them are able to name a brand that acts on the opinions of its customers, citing Tesco, John Lewis and Amazon as those most likely to, although not all of these brands have membership schemes such as a loyalty card.

The ICM Research study shows that people like being members of clubs, loyalty schemes and institution because it gives them a sense of belonging, the opportunity to support their community and have their say.

But, says David Perry, associate director at ICM, people feel brands in the main are not listening to their opinions. “That is often one of the downsides of big brands: customers feel they do not have any influence or say.”  

Most of the clubs people belong to are for non-commercial organisations. Two-thirds of the memberships mentioned in the study are for sports groups, charities and special interest societies. The other third are commercial, including loyalty cards, belonging to a gym or membership of a car breakdown service. 

Receiving special offers, services and keeping up-to-date with information are why people have a membership linked to a brand; for non-commercial organisation memberships, they cite interacting with the community, socialising, friendships and sharing experiences.

Having a positive influence on the world, connecting like-minded people, creating a sense of belonging and supporting the local community are the other reasons why people belong to an organisation. 

Supporting the local community is the one factor of membership that comes through strongest for brands. Almost half (46 per cent) of them can name at least one brand where they think membership benefits a community and large retailers are most mentioned.

“The Sainsbury’s and the Tesco’s of this world are very much in their local community. People go there on a daily basis and you often see these retailers do local community link-ups and charity work, so there is a sense that they are big players in the local community,” says Perry.  

Companies also perform well in connecting like-minded people and 33 per cent of the respondents name at least one brand. Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Google, Nokia and Samsung are all listed. 

Perry believes that this is because positive factors of what these brands facilitate rubs off on the companies and “they are not just seen as the nuts and bolts of allowing those conversations to happen”.   

National Trust found that its members do want recognition and is carrying out research to enrich the relationship

Twenty-eight per cent of people can name a brand that has a positive influence on the world, for example Oxfam and The Co-operative Group, and 23 per cent name brands such as John Lewis and Apple as creating a sense of belonging.  

Perry believes that industry is starting to see consumers take it upon themselves to air opinions – and some brands are acting on those grievances. He says: “Customers can have a bigger influence than before by posting a negative complaint on social media, and there are stories about people getting things done by going down that route.  

“It doesn’t have to be a negative thing; it can be more about a brand saying we are going to listen and allow our customers to have a voice. That’s an obvious thing that brands can do to embrace the idea of allowing customers to have more say.”  

The National Trust, a conservation charity that protects and opens historic and green spaces to the public and has 4 million members, is carrying out research to ensure it listens to its members.

Its director of members and donors Tom Shelston says: “We are running a programme of research to understand how our members view their relationships with us. We will take the findings of this on board and will adapt our offer to members. 

“We are also investing heavily in data integration and analytics, bringing all our diverse data sources together so we can model and better understand member behaviour; all with the goal of behaving differently so that we can enrich their relationship with us.”

The ICM study also shows memberships are rising – 45 per cent of adults are members of an organisation and the average person is a member of 2.7 organisations. In 2012, when the study was first conducted, 47 per cent of adults were members but the average person was a member of 2.3 organisations. 

Perry says: “You might think that when Margaret Thatcher said years ago that there is no such thing as society, people might have stopped joining things. But this research shows that not to be the case.” 

The research also shows the types of membership benefits and which type of organisation achieves those. Rewards-based rather than emotional benefits are mentioned by consumers when talking about belonging to a commercial entity, with loyalty cards the most common at 17 per cent, followed by gyms at 5 per cent and breakdown cover also at 5 per cent.

However, according to Perry, those brands that can tap into emotional benefits rather than a transactional communication will achieve a “deeper, long-lasting relationship”.    

Yet this is a big challenge for brands. Perry says: “It’s clear that membership organisations are structured in a certain way, and you cannot decide overnight that your company is going to be structured differently to be more like them.”  

Perry believes that achieving deeper relationship benefits can be done in the first instance through what brands say about themselves, how they project themselves and the values that they bring to the fore. 

Brands could also gain a lot from treating customers as members, giving them more than products and services and tapping into some of the emotional elements of membership, such as shared experiences, community and a chance to air opinions, he adds.

“The most striking thing is that brands need to listen to people and allow their voice to be heard. To a certain extent brands are doing some things, for example supporting the local community – a lot of brands are mentioned in this context. 

“However, there is a real challenge here to create a sense of warmth, of being open and transparent with customers, and it’s not just about saying that you do this but about showing in real ways that you are set up to listen.”  

Marketers’ response


Maria Gara
Senior marketing manager
The National Trust

We found that rather than be offered rewards as such, members want to be recognised for either their tenure with us or because they have invested in purchasing a membership. We have to tread a careful line to ensure we recognise and thank supporters but not lose sight of our core purpose of looking after places.  We’re trying to better understand what our supporters want from their membership – what value means to them and how we can communicate better. We also measure how our brand is scoring in these key audiences. For example, parents are keen to get their kids outdoors so we try to inspire them with campaigns such as ‘50 things to do before you’re 11 ¾’ where we want kids climbing trees and rolling down hills. 


Gill Barr
Group marketing director
The Co-operative Group

Our organisation was founded by 28 members in 1844 and is still owned by our members today. We are different because we haven’t invented membership; membership is the reason why we exist. We have 7 million members and we encourage our customers to join. Our members democratically own The Co-operative and so it is imperative that we listen to their opinions. We listen in all sorts of ways, through research, social media and in terms of behavioural data. We listen to our customers exactly the same as everyone else. One big difference is that we also have a unique channel – membership. These are people who are engaged in our business and therefore give valuable feedback, they are almost like super customers.


The ICM Research on memberships looked at a nationally representative sample of 2,000 UK adults in October and November 2013. The respondents were asked what type of organisations they are members of, what ideas they associate with the idea of membership and the benefits of being a member of an organisation.

Respondents have also been asked to name brands that they believe are associated with five value factors, including acting on people’s opinions, having a positive influence on the world, supporting the local community, connecting like-minded people and creating a sense of belonging.     



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