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The loyalty trap

It’s the ‘floating voters’, not brand loyalists, marketers need to reach out to
Loyalists have nothing to teach you in your quest to win with the wider majority
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

Marketers looking for insights will often turn to their most loyal customers to gain them. The idea is that those who really love the brand may uncover some unexplored facet of its appeal that can then be used to lure in those who favour rival brands.

This makes as much sense as Jeremy Corbyn communing earnestly with the Labour members who gave him the leadership and bottling the essence of their ardour with the intention of using it to woo floating voters. Well, it’s easy to see the flaw there: hardliners and Trotskyists aren’t necessarily a reliable guide to the proclivities and motivations of the great mass of people in the middle. They are, self-evidently, outliers.

Marketers fail to see that their own loyal customers are also outliers. Or worse: weirdos. In an amply supplied market, rich with dizzying alternatives, who in their right mind insists on staying true to a single brand? Just one shampoo. Just one beer. Just one chocolate line. Forever.

If you can find true loyalists for your brand – not as easy as it sounds – the best advice would be to leave them well alone with their strange habit and not try to work out what drives it. These people are odd; the commercial equivalent of stalkers. They have nothing to teach you in your quest to win with the wider majority, who are not quite so fixated.

But you probably don’t have many true loyalists, anyway. The term is often conflated with “heavy users”. Yet someone who buys your brand frequently is more likely to be a category heavy user, with a wide repertoire of brands. A chocolate-bar lover may buy a Kit Kat four times a week – and look like a loyalist – but fill the rest of their ten category purchases with two Snickers, a couple of Yorkies, the odd Chocolate Orange and anything else that takes their fancy. They buy competitors more than they buy Kit Kat: “valuable” they might be; “loyal” they are not.

the-loyalty-trap-insetIn fact, the more you look at loyalty, the more complex and nuanced the subject becomes. It’s one of those apparent virtues that marketers give a great deal of time and credence to without getting under the skin of either meaning or metrics.

Someone who has done both is Professor Byron Sharp, building on the academic work of the late Professor Andrew Ehrenberg. In his controversial book How Brands Grow, Sharp took a swipe at marketers who shun mass marketing to focus on frequent purchasers in the belief that retention is more efficient than acquisition. Using purchase data from numerous categories, he showed that almost all brand consumption follows a similar pattern: a thin spike of heavy users at the left of the graph and a long, shallow line of light ones drifting away to the right, typically contributing half of all sales. Rather than vainly attempting to make the few who already consume a lot to consume more, he argues, the route to growth is to increase penetration among the lightweights.

Martin Weigel, head of planning at Wieden & Kennedy Amsterdam, counsels marketers to stop talking about “our” consumer, but to think of them as “a buyer of another brand who sometimes happens to buy ours”. Weigel explains the obsession with loyalty – along with its concomitants “relationship” “community” and “engagement” – as a casualty of the limitations of language. We anthropomorphise our commercial activities and then become influenced by the very language we have chosen – forgetting that these terms are metaphors, which should be handled with care.

That linguistic influence is there on the negative side, too, in the word we choose to depict those buying a range of brands within a category: promiscuous. If “loyalty” comes with shades of steadfastness and honour, then “promiscuity” is vaguely grubby and dissolute. Do we really want to converse with these commercially inconstant types, other than to lead them to the path of fidelity?

We should do. The pool of promiscuity is precisely where marketers should look for insights into human nature, the category and even their own brands. Why? Because the promiscuous are alive and curious, they get about more, they have more comparisons to make. And because they offer us the greatest insight of all: the inconsequential role of brands in the great drama of life, which is something we cannot learn too often.

People might strive to be loyal in their human relationships, and struggle a bit even there. Some things are worth the effort to engage with and build communities around. Our brand just might not be one of them. Like Corbyn, we would do better to ignore the few oddballs who take an even greater interest in our brand than we do, and cast out to the mass of floating voters instead. The trade-off will be a little less love, and a lot more sanity.

Loyalty myths

Many marketers are seduced by the frequently quoted “Pareto law”, which states that 20% of customers account for 80% of sales. They don’t. According to Professor Byron Sharp, they typically account for just 50%, with the other half coming from the much larger group who buy the brand only rarely.

Loyalists are often prized for their role as advocates, evangelising about the brand. But academic research in 2005 showed that new customers are much more likely to talk to others about their purchase, as they are doing something fresh rather than simply maintaining a habit.

You will have seen a PowerPoint chart in a presentation from a CRM specialist stating that “It costs five times more to acquire a new customer than it does to keep an existing one”. What you won’t have seen is a reference to the research study that threw up this figure. Because there wasn’t one.