Shreyas Kulkarni
Points of View

Is brand loyalty a luxury we can no longer afford?

Today, people will buy whatever is available. What does this do to brand loyalty? Is it a luxury buyers can no longer afford? Where does that leave marketers?

You’re out of tea. Immediately, you wear a mask and run to your nearest grocery store. You stand in line, patiently, while maintaining social distancing norms. On reaching the counter you discover your favourite brand is not available. The agony. What do you do?

Most will buy the next available brand. Rinse. Repeat. And before you know it, this buyer has switched brands. Clearly, availability trumps all other marketing tacks, and distribution is the most crucial spoke in the marketing wheel. In such a scenario, what happens to brand loyalty? Is it a modern relic of a recent yet bygone era? Have we stuck a pin in it temporarily? And how can marketers reconcile this reality?

Edited excerpts.

Anupam Bokey, CMO, RPSG FMCG (Guiltfree Industries) Too Yumm!
Anupam Bokey, CMO, RPSG FMCG (Guiltfree Industries) Too Yumm!

Anupam Bokey, CMO, Too Yumm!

The lockdown is an unusual event but it won't last too long. At this point in time, we can't see anybody who has been able to distribute well enough – neither giant companies with massive distribution networks nor small ones have managed to take advantage.

Sellers of essential goods are safe but that's plain luck. The non-essential goods category is facing trouble too; while sellers of commodities with a long shelf-life versus a short shelf-life are in different situations, everyone has borne the brunt.

I don't think distribution has taken over marketing. Marketing shouldn't be evaluated in such a constrained situation, but in one where there is equal access to everything.

In the past, when a brand was taken off the shelves (regulatory reasons or otherwise), the moment it came back, people went back to it. Perhaps, it's a chance to try new brands which you otherwise wouldn't and in turn, it's a golden opportunity for the other brands too. Loyalties aren't at stake here. When the situation improves, consumers will go back to their favourite brands... with more love, possibly, because they missed them.

Brand loyalty in a crisis is more important than ever, but I would not call it fragile.
Navonil Chatterjee
Navonil Chatterjee

Navonil Chaterjee, joint president and chief strategy officer, Rediffusion

Marketing is about two types of availability – physical and mental. The former is the distribution part of it, while the latter is where all of us come in: Brands, marketing agencies, advertising, positioning, salience, brand popping up in interesting places, etc. We may look at availability as 'physical distribution', but we miss the mental part of it.

I feel brand loyalty is in itself an overrated concept. There is lot of proof that most categories – maybe tea and cigarettes are close exceptions – don't see strong loyalty. I change my toothbrush and soap brand all the time because I want that little bit of novelty. Brand loyalty was always a marketer's dream and prerogative. Someone once told me, human beings aren't born to be monogamous, so how will they be monogamous with brands? Ideally, brands would like them to be.

I'm no Nostradamus, but I will say that there are people who are not brand savvy (at the bottom of the pyramid) and those who are fence-sitters (indifferent to brands). They may stick to a cheaper alternative. But the consumer community has a short public memory. The moment we're back to normal, we will go back to all our bad habits – and that's the good thing for brand marketers.

Brand and loyalty operate in the space of 'want'. However, we've regressed into the space of 'need'. We have gone through what we can call a downward spiral in the Maslow-ian hierarchy and are back to'roti, kapda, makaan'.

Just because an online grocer or an Amazon isn't delivering to me now, will I only buy from 'kirana' stores later? I don't think so. I will return to hypermarkets, aisles and food-halls. Loyalty, whichever form it existed in before the crisis, will return.

While 'conservativeness' will seep in, it's different for different people. Let's say things open up in June, I feel it will be a bumper Diwali like nobody's business. Not for everybody, but for the affluent lot, the ones whose salaries aren't affected, and those who have saved money.

Chandrahas Panigrahi
Chandrahas Panigrahi

Chandrahas Panigrahi, CMO and consumer business head, Acer India

While the market has certainly taken a hit, we have seen a surge in demand as more people are dependent on PCs to work, learn and stay connected. Distribution/availability will be a crucial factor in the near term because consumers will want to satisfy pent-up demand.

We have opened up pre-booking on our e-store, which covers around 20,000 pin codes; we’ll deliver as soon as we get government approval. We are also allowing our partner stores to take pre-order bookings. So in the short-term, just meeting the demand and working on our delivery capabilities will be crucial.

Brand loyalty in a crisis is more important than ever, but I would not call it fragile. Consumers will now opt for credibility, convenience, safety and easy finance.

Brand loyalty has been under stress for a while now, with consumers, in general, becoming experimentative, 'repertoire users'.
Mythili Chandrasekar
Mythili Chandrasekar

Mythili Chandrasekar, consumer behaviour and brand strategy enthusiast

Today, the stress on loyalty is more due to unavailability and lack of access. So we either end up going without something or trying other options and alternatives. Must-have and nice-to-have get separated. And in trying the alternative, we might either realise it is just as good as our preferred choice or end up convinced that our original choice is better. The moment of truth will come when stuff is easily accessible again. Will we go back to a favourite brand "at last", or carry on with the alternative because "how does it matter?".

Gurpreet Amrit
Gurpreet Amrit

Gurpreet Amrit, CMO, Cremica

Consumers will never be comfortable buying a completely unknown brand.

Distribution excellence, retail visibility and execution have always helped small brands get disproportionate market share. The same holds true in this period of crisis as well. So smaller brands that have already created awareness and positive consumer perception can increase their share at a time like this by driving distribution. Consumers will never be comfortable buying a completely unknown brand.

COVID-19 is a 'black swan' event. Consumers had to rush to stockpile food and essentials. In such times, brand availability trumped brand loyalty. As companies recover from the disruption and streamline their distribution, brand loyalty will once again be the biggest determinant of market fortunes.