To understand loyalties in love, irrespective of what it is for, it's important to at least size up that iceberg of a question - Why do we love in the first place?
Likewise, brands we loved were guided by the dominant expectations and moods of the times, guaranteeing quality assurance during industrialisation, symbolising lifestyles when prosperity grew, and advocating bottom line when tough times loomed.
As we now evolve into mature individualistic societies, the self gains prominence, and leads to a new definition of love. More importantly, this love is not thrust as an ownership and obligation in exchange for social and financial security or even a familial arrangement of beneficial convenience. It is now chosen. And, that is what gets amplified manifold in the brand world.
Quite simply, this is due to the fact that today the consumers' engagement with what they choose is increasingly dominated by their ability to 'pause, fast forward and rewind' the purchasing process, rather than simply 'play', a change clearly ushered in by digital.
Digital indeed has played a pivotal part in making time less linear, and understandably posing challenges to loyalties in a world of daily relationship status updates. Let's examine why.
The consumers' views of brand choice start in a familiar place: passive awareness of many brands followed by disposition to a few within a category. But when consumers start actively considering brands, they add and subtract to their shortlist dynamically. This completely distorts the shape and linear sequencing of the traditional purchase funnel.
As per a recent analytics study done in the auto sector in Europe, a car prospect began his purchase journey with a set of four brands, underwent an experience of 106 touch points of evaluation, changed his likely set of brands four times over, and finally bought a car that wasn't even there in his so called consideration set at the beginning!
What other consumers say about a brand is increasingly becoming the most important input in consumer decision-making. In a way, this is nothing new - word of mouth has always had incredible influence on purchasing. The big change, of course, is the dynamic way in which opinions are heard, and how fast and far they spread. Today people can log their opinion instantly, knowing it may be read by thousands (sometimes millions) of people within hours. It is often said that three times as many people take time out to complain than to praise - and bad news has always travelled faster!
The big change is that digital has facilitated a never-ending snowstorm of information, reviews, opinions, feedback, gossip, anecdotes and (above all) experience - and companies have no way of stopping this. This means that other consumers can influence brand perceptions at every stage of the customer journey, either as passionate advocates or powerful detractors. But reviews and feedback are not the end of the story - they are part of a much bigger 'pattern of engagement' that consumers are developing with brands.
So the big oxymoron of a question is: "Is loyalty sustainable at all? Or is it all that good it's made out to be?" Should it be an expectation at all or merely a result of superior ongoing deliverance of the most compelling needs and desires? Otherwise, isn't it a case of tolerating the "bad", the "inefficient"?
It surely has to be a result of a dynamic social listening that enables rich appreciation of pain points across the customer journey. Brands need to act with greater responsiveness to each of the consumer concerns rather than generalizing the multiplicity of the experiences into a platitude of an insight answered by pretty pictures, mush or a gag in the name of advertising.
The other day, motivated by the joy of spontaneity, we ventured out for a weekend getaway to a nearby hill station, without any reservations. En-route, the anxiety of finding a good hotel saw us figure bookings online.
A reputed hotel seemed available and was also quite present through large beautiful billboards as we drove down. But hey! Just as we were to book, some reviews and ratings drew our attention. "Good history and location but the bathrooms leak" said one. "Nice views but poor service and carpets get damp and stink during monsoons" said another. Needless to say, the deal fell through.
So, how can brands sustain loyalties amidst the transparency, freedom and choice of the post digital world?
Quite simply, by doing the things that have always made sense! By being empathetic and sensitive, good listeners and acting fast on the slightest concerns and by not remaining stuck in the presumptuous irrelevance of the past.
To begin with, if you have to fix the bathrooms, don't put up pretty billboards.
Simple. Isn't it?
(The author is MD of Interbrand India, the brand consultancy arm of the DDB Mudra Group).