Despite some perceptions in the market, Millennials are just as brand loyal as Baby Boomers. A Facebook study last fall found 77 percent of consumers surveyed repeatedly returned to the brands they said they loved.
Nurturing that level of loyalty and retaining customers long term is a challenge, but several recent studies suggest that a consumer’s emotional connection with a brand can determine the degree of their loyalty. Moreover, one study showed a clear disconnect between how shoppers and brands view one another. While retailers and brands tend to view the brand-customer relationship as transactional (meaning a sale), shoppers experience the relationship as a deep, emotionally driven attachment.
And this helps explain why brands that fail to deliver the right product and/or service can destroy that relationship.
In a survey of more than 20,000 consumers that involved 10,000-plus brands from 12 countries, InMoment found that the brands that consistently meet consumer expectations maintain their loyalty. And when it comes to that emotional connection, 38 percent of respondents associated the emotion of “satisfaction” with a positive brand experience, the researchers said in their report. Additionally, 40 percent of those polled used the emotion “satisfaction” to describe their most loyal brands.
The analysts of the report said “pairing these findings with a deeper dive into the qualitative data revealed that consumers are both happy and loyal when brands simply deliver on what consumers feel they’ve been promised.”
The connection between happiness, loyalty and emotional connection to a brand can be understood from the perspective of John Bowlby’s “Attachment Theory.” The psychoanalyst developed the theory from examining parent and infant relationships. His notion of an attachment is essentially a bond between a person and an object.
Research from scholars Deborah J. MacInnis and C. Whan Park, from the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, in 2005 applied Bowlby’s theory to consumers and brands. They noted that “attachments vary in strength, and stronger attachments are associated with stronger feelings of connection, affection, love and passion.”
“The desire to make strong emotional attachments to particular others serves a basic human need, beginning from a child’s attachment to his or her mother and continuing through the adult stage with romantic relationships kinships and friendships,” they wrote.
In their research, the scholars used several metrics to measure the emotional ties that people have with brands including factors such as “affection, passion and connection.”
Since then, researchers have continued to explore this relationship, which is helping to inform product development, merchandising, marketing and social media campaigns. But the inflection points occurs at the point of sale.
The InMoment research found that when brands fail to meet consumer expectations, the impact is strong.
“In the study, consumers used strong, personal language to describe bad experiences,” the InMoment researchers said. “The top emotions were ‘disappointed, disrespected’ and ‘frustrated,’” the report noted.
Brennan Wilkie, senior vice president of customer experience strategy at InMoment, said the study revealed that “customers increasingly see their interactions with brands as more relationship-oriented than transaction-based.”
Wilkie said customer expectations “are actually very reasonable, so failing to deliver on the brand promise leaves them with strong, negative emotions. If the brand promise is in alignment with consumer expectations and consistently delivered, customers are much more like likely to continue, and even grow that relationship.”
Feelings and emotions also played a key role in a separate report from Salesforce. In its “Connected Consumer” study, researchers at the firm said in their report that “retailers should be wary about how seamless their communications to customers are, as shoppers who purchased an item in-store and received an online offer via another channel for the same product felt annoyed (47 percent) and cheated out of a better price (43 percent).”
Cheated? Annoyed? Again, the terms used reflect the emotional level and complexity of the consumer-brand bond.
In another research report from MBLM on “brand intimacy,” researchers further examined this relationship as well as its impact on the brand itself — from a sales and earnings perspective. The firm, which describes brand intimacy “as a new paradigm that leverages and strengthens the emotional bonds between a person and a brand,” ranked brands within 15 separate industries using several metrics to create a “brand intimacy quotient score.”
They found that the top-ranked intimate brands outperformed the S&P and Fortune 500 indices “in revenue and profit over the past 10 years.”
The companies with the highest scores in this year’s report were Apple, Disney and Amazon. The other top brands were Harley-Davidson, Netflix, Nintendo, Samsung, Whole Foods, BMW and Toyota. And reflecting current consumer behavior trends, the research showed that experiential brands earned higher scores.
“Escapist brands — largely within media and entertainment — did extremely well this year,” the analysts said in the report. “From Netflix and Nintendo to Xbox and HBO, consumers seem to connect strongly with brands that let them entertain themselves on demand.”
Overall, the results showed that the apparel sector has some catching up to do in regard to creating a better emotional connection to consumers. The apparel sector had a brand intimacy quotient score of 27.9, which compares to an average of 28.7 of the 15 industries analyzed. The apparel brands with the highest intimacy score were Levi’s with a score of 49.2, which was followed by Nike with a 47.5 and Lululemon Athletica with a 37.8.
The report showed that if top S&P and Fortune 500 brands performed at the same growth rate as the top intimate brands, “an average S&P company would have earned an additional $7.7 billion in revenue and $5.3 billion in profit. An average Fortune 500 company would have generated an additional $20.3 billion in revenue and $2.9 billion in profit.”
Mario Natarelli, who is a managing partner at MBLM, said the report “once again reveals that the bonds created between a brand and a consumer deliver greater economic growth.”
“Brand growth starts and ends with emotion and the quantity, quality and character of the bonds formed with customers,” Natarelli said.