Posted by Megan Oldcorn
12 February, 2018

If you work in marketing or sales, the word ‘loyalty’ is probably one you’ll encounter on a regular basis. It’s everywhere, from branding documents to the dog-eared so-called ‘loyalty’ card you pull out of your pocket when buying a coffee. But is loyalty simply a buzzword?

True brand loyalty – creating a base of happy returning customers – is actually hugely valuable. When your customers are loyal, they’ll keep coming back without the enticement of expensive discounts or complex marketing campaigns. What’s more, they’ll probably tell their friends, family and next-door neighbour, doing a large part of your advertising for free.

Building an emotional connection

As marketing guru Simon Middleton points out, loyalty cards are all well and good, but they don’t really build loyalty – they build regularity. Real loyalty is emotional, rather than a relationship built on quantifiable rewards like points or freebies. 

Just like any relationship, the slow build-up takes work, but the benefits to your business can be enormous. In almost every sector, it’s far easier and cheaper to retain customers than find new ones. Ultimately, having a loyal following and an established brand means that you can afford to charge a little more – people will usually pay extra for something that they know and trust. The key thing is that perceived value (what you or I think something is worth) matches the price being charged.

As a consumer, you’re probably familiar with the popular complaint about discounts that only apply to new customers. “What about me?” we all wonder. “I’ve been with you for years!” These types of offers fail existing customers for two reasons: they devalue the end product, and they show disloyalty to those who’ve stuck with the company. It always irks me when a car insurance renewal costs more than a new policy with the same company. None of us likes to feel that our loyalty isn’t rewarded, and there’s very little loyalty in this profit-driven market. 

Stay in touch

In an age when consumers actively decide what they want to buy – rather than trusting marketers to tell them – and can easily share their opinions with others, it’s becoming rare to retain ‘blindly loyal’ customers. To achieve real loyalty, where a customer keeps coming back because they feel their relationship with you is valuable and meaningful, you have to put some effort in. This can be as basic as keeping in touch. 

When customers are satisfied and simply keep buying, they’re very low maintenance – and of course, that’s just what every company wants. But checking in with a customer doesn’t take a great deal of time and shows you’re still interested in them. If you’re an online shop, this may be a simple email to ask how a recent purchase worked out. If you run a hotel, it could be a small touch like fresh flowers and a friendly note in a returning guest’s room. There’s little quantifiable gain for the customer in these actions – they haven’t saved any money or got much for free – but the emotional gain is significant.

Likewise, effective communication avoids the pitfalls of unexpected change. Perhaps you’re a local tourist attraction that’s closing for maintenance works. This is fair and understandable, but simply updating your opening hours online is likely to annoy those who visit regularly and don’t always check before setting off. However, sending advance notice in a friendly newsletter to subscribers shows you care about their time.

Be consistent

Consistency is also a key factor in brand loyalty. If we return to a company again and again, it’s because they’re doing something we like. If they suddenly and unexpectedly don’t do this (if, for instance, the fresh bread at your favourite café is swapped for a cheap supermarket loaf), it’s a jarring and disconcerting experience. You’ll no longer trust that if you take your mother-in-law to lunch it’ll be as good as you’ve promised. To a certain extent, this is a break in value – you’re no longer getting the same freshness for your money – but it’s also an emotional letdown, and that’s the real kicker. 

It’s also important that your approach towards customers is consistent across every touchpoint with your brand. If you’re warm and easy to speak to when face to face, make sure that you’re fast to respond to enquiries via social media or email. Customers who are used to a certain level of engagement will expect it to run through everything if it’s genuine. If there’s a disconnect, trust levels may take a hit.

Show your trust

Over time, loyal customers can become one of your greatest assets. With its vast network of connections, social media is a platform that’s perfect for brand advocacy. When you have a base of loyal followers they’re likely to post unofficially on your behalf, answering questions from other users and even tackling negative comments for you. 

A good way to begin identifying and nurturing your group of brand advocates is to build a positive social media community. The team at Innocent (yes, I know I’ve mentioned them before) is fantastic at this. The smoothies company sends out a personalised postcard or letter with ‘have a drink on us’ vouchers to some of its most engaged social media followers, or those it thinks are in need of a treat. These followers normally create a thank you post, which Innocent again replies to in its classic, informal way. The whole exercise probably costs very little (some free drinks, postage, and a small amount of someone’s time), but it helps to create the sense of a warm and friendly community. In addition, the recipient feels valued as a customer and very positive about the brand.

With a dialogue in place, be sure to respond to your followers and regularly engage with what they say. If you reach a point where you’re truly comfortable with a small group of advocates, you might even consider asking them to be official brand ambassadors. Your ambassadors could simply post about you and your services, amplifying your content, or they might manage your Facebook groups or monitor your online community. Try to choose the people you already talk to, who are regular customers, focusing on those who share your values and are likely to influence your target audience. In return, you could offer public recognition, small perks or advance access to products or services as a thank you. 

If your advocates are engaged enough to become official brand ambassadors, consider utilising them beyond social media. Invite their opinions on new ideas or products and really listen to what they have to say. This way, the end result will be influenced by genuine consumers rather than a small team sitting around a meeting-room table. Those customers will feel they have a stake in your company, as well as getting the goods or experience they really want. Even if some feedback is negative, it’s always useful to know what your audience is thinking (or even saying) so that you can tailor products or services to suit them.

Reap the rewards

In a competitive world, with advertising appearing everywhere and a multitude of options for most purchases, brand loyalty is a principle that’s coming under strain. However, faced with such an overwhelming amount of choice for each and every purchase, many of us stick with a favourite brand as an easy, reliable go-to; we don’t always want to risk the unknown. If your product, service or experience feels superior in some way, and if you’re able to achieve consistency and communicate significant value to consumers, there’s a good chance they’ll stick around. With a little extra care and attention, you could build the kind of relationship that lasts for years.  

Interested in branding? Read our five tips for building a winning brand or find out more about defining a brand tone of voice.