Anchit Chauhan
Guest Article

If there was ever a time to cheat on your brand...

What happens to brand loyalty when supply drives purchase, questions Anchit Chauhan, when he is forced to buy a toothpaste (brand) he otherwise wouldn't have bought.

Just last week, on day 26 of the lockdown, I ran out of toothpaste. One of the many items I had completely missed to stock up when the lockdown began. Covering up my mouth with a mask, I ventured out to my society’s grocery store, only to discover that it had sold out the brand of toothpaste I had sought.

The same brand of toothpaste that I had been using ever since I remember brushing my teeth, barring a couple of highly regretted misadventures when I tried to go the ayurveda and medicated route.

After a couple of sighs of disbelief at the fact that the toothpaste, as ubiquitous as air and water, wasn’t suddenly available, I immediately tapped on the app icons of online grocers on my phone, only to discover that the only one that still had my brand was going to deliver it not earlier than three days.

The moment I had never imagined, would arrive, had, in fact, arrived. I had a choice between another brand of toothpaste, which I had last tried and rejected seven years ago, and a brand that I had never tried. I went with the latter, being adventurous as I am.

And a week later, while brushing my teeth with the same toothpaste, a question came to my mind. What happens to brand loyalty when supply drives purchase?

The easy answer is that it’s a temporary switch for the consumer. That they are highly loyal to the products they love, and once they find them back on the shelves again, they’d switch back.

That would be the reality in a perfect world, but maybe it’s not that simple. Let’s look at the possible scenarios that could potentially alter consumer behaviour in significant ways during the lockdown:

Increased trials of alternative brands: The unavailability of preferred brands of essential products will obviously lead to a trial boost for other equals in the category that are available to consumers at the moment of truth.

Ranging from instant coffee brands and instant noodles, to hygiene products to brands of spices and other household products, brand loyalty would’ve become the least contributing influencer of purchase.

And if these trials are satisfactory, they’ll surely impact the loyalty of the consumers to their previous favourites and make a place for themselves in the consideration set.

Re-evaluation of essentials: If there’s one thing that the lockdown would’ve taught consumers across segments, it would be judicious use of resources. Consumers would be forced to re-evaluate the importance of many products that they earlier bought as essentials. Whether RTD juice packs are more important, or real fruits are good enough, whether basic cereal is critical, or flavoured muesli, whether a bar soap is good enough or fancy shower gels.

This forced re-evaluation might result in permanent behaviour change, and the consumers might simply deem inessential, many of the products and brands that they were earlier so loyal to.

New product discoveries: Dalgona coffee became wildly popular during the lockdown. It is, essentially, instant coffee beaten to a creamy texture. Not many would be aware that ITC had very recently launched Sunbean Beaten Caffé, a brand of ready-beaten coffee paste, a first of its kind product in India.

However, the new-found popularity of Dalgona coffee might lead to more discovery of ITC’s product by consumers and dissuade them from buying instant coffee powder brands they were so loyal to, post lockdown.

Such discoveries can happen in many other categories, for example, dedicated music apps like Spotify, Gaana, etc., versus YouTube as a music platform, or even radio.

While this scenario is true for normal times, too, times like these accelerate such discoveries, especially when consumers have so much time to discover new services and products.

The rise of home-made: A heightened sense of safety and hygiene during the lockdown has encouraged consumers to be their own chefs and creators.

YouTube data suggests that recipe videos have seen a meteoric rise in their view numbers during the lockdown. As consumers acquire these new culinary skills, and develop a passion for cooking, it’s likely that they continue nurturing the hobby in the future, too.

If breakthroughs, such as home-made pizza being as good as the one delivered in under 30 minutes, or home-made noodles being better and even healthier than the two-minute wonder, happen, it’s likely to again break many habits and thereby, loyalty to a range of products and services.

Deep emotional bonds: Among the very few services available during the lockdown, the consumer might form emotional bonds with the ones that help him get through the times, and they might simply develop preference for some activities over others.

If consumers were e-grocer loyalists before the lockdown, they might suddenly feel like giving more business to their next-door mom & pop store, which so selflessly served them during the tough times.

Movie nights at home might become a family thing, and replace weekend cinema outings.

How brands responded to the crisis might also alter the connect that consumers had with them. For example, an alcohol brand’s gesture to donate sanitisers to the government might help it gain respect from consumers, and bond them with the brand stronger than any of its competitors.

Emotional bonds contribute greatly to brand loyalty and also play a big role in switching loyalties.

These unprecedented times will certainly break consumer inertia, which is often a big, if not the biggest, factor in maintaining brand loyalty for many market leaders. This broken inertia will lead to new discoveries for the consumer, make him forge new emotional bonds, and force him to re-evaluate.

With so many changes in consumer mindset taking place in such a short time, maybe brand loyalty, as we know it, might change forever. It will be interesting to see how brands change their approach to bond with the changed consumer.

(The author is director – brand strategy at Dentsu WebChutney.)