NEW YORK — What’s the ultimate challenge in building brand loyalty? Health care services, no doubt, says one marketing expert.

This story first appeared in the May 28, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The reason, observed Ohio State marketing professor Neeli Bendapudi, is that “when someone visits a health care provider, it’s about the least fun they can have as a consumer.”

With that in mind, Bendapudi teamed up with Texas A&M marketing professor Leonard L. Berry to conduct an ethnographic study of the Mayo Clinics in Rochester, Minn., and Scottsdale, Ariz. (Ethnographic research aims to reveal how people use a service or product, in context.) The goal: to see which practices in those high-stress environments could be applied to make stores more pleasing to customers.

Sound like a stretch? Not so, said Bendapudi, who maintained stores, too, are stressful settings. Like a hospital, a store is a complex environment that thrives on giving visitors clues about what to expect of the experience, rather than leaving it entirely to chance. “If all the plants in a doctor’s waiting room were dying, it would make patients feel uncomfortable, if only subconsciously — even though it could mean nothing more than the doctor’s a poor gardener,” Bendapudi said, in arguing against the random approach.

At the Mayo Clinics, in contrast, doctors clue in patients by using personal pagers instead of stressful public address systems and by wearing business suits instead of hospital whites to foster communication. Similarly, at Chico’s stores, mirrorless dressing rooms compel shoppers to enter mirrored communal areas where they can get feedback from fellow shoppers and where salespeople can suggest additional items.

Such tactics are growing more important for all marketers, Bendapudi emphasized, as the 71 million Millennials, now ages 8 to 25, “are less moved by ads than by their experience of brands.”