When it comes to running any successful business, customer acquisition (while important) is really just the tip of the iceberg. Invariably, the brands that ‘win’ are the ones which are able to develop long, lasting and engaged relationships with their customers, characterized by significant brand loyalty.
But how do they do it? Every business is different, so what do these ones have in common? What is it that brings their customers close – and keeps them there?
In short: what really creates customer loyalty?
Perhaps we can answer these questions most effectively by taking a look at real brands with extraordinarily loyal customers.
Brand research consultancy Brand Keys recently launched their 19th Annual Customer Loyalty Engagement Index, identifying the brands that are best in class at maintaining deep customer relationships.
We’ve picked out four of the high performers from this index to explore further to answer these simple questions:
What creates loyalty, how do brands keep customers engaged, and how can you emulate these steps in your own business?
1. American Express
Mention ‘American Express’ and your mind is likely to be drawn toward big business and big commerce. But the company’s OPEN forum, launched in 2007, is perhaps one of the best ever examples of a customer loyalty driver, and it was aimed exclusively at helping small businesses grow.
The insights and resources shared on OPEN are not only a fantastic way to promote the company’s small business cards and services, but a way to demonstrate that – as a brand – American Express is committed to helping you grow your business. This is a powerful statement and a key facilitator of enhanced loyalty.
This is really typical of a wider shift in marketing, from the old-fashioned, interruptive style represented by billboards and cold calls, towards an approach designed to assist and add real value to the target audience. Again, there’s no doubt that this approach can help boost loyalty: according to Content Marketing Institute, 64% of B2B marketers say they use content marketing to achieve customer retention and loyalty goals.
Few markets are quite as crowded as the automotive industry – and, in an area that’s so aspirational, it can be a huge challenge to retain customers. As a brand, Toyota stands on its own – boasting the most faithful buyers in the space, according to an Experian Automotive report.
“Toyota has done an outstanding job of regaining customer trust and getting repeat customers into showrooms,” says Jeffrey Anderson, director of consulting and analytics for Experian Automative.
So what builds trust? Clearly, product quality and reliability are of huge importance, particularly in the world of transport. Toyota’s secret weapon is the ‘Just in Time’ production approach, a philosophy which, despite gaining almost universal acceptance, was actually pioneered by the Toyota company. The whole Toyota Production System has been designed to provide the customer with high quality vehicles (at great value) with shortest lead times. It’s all about quality, and consistency.
And that approach certainly seems to bear fruit among Toyota customers.
Apple has cultivated one of the most loyal brand followings ever seen, with a staggering 59% of iPhone users reporting that they do so because of ‘blind loyalty.’1 In such a saturated marketplace, that really is quite incredible.
What is it about Apple that inspires such loyalty? You have to start with the brand’s clearly defined vision and mission statement. It began with Steve Jobs’ commitment to innovation, product quality and cutting-edge design, and these ideals continue to resonate with customers today.
By creating and ‘living’ this kind of brand manifesto – by standing for something – you can create an emotional connection with your customers, too. This is often enough to preserve customer loyalty even when things go wrong. Many Apple users find themselves emotionally invested in the products they use, in large part because those products stand for an idea. Apple usage, itself, has slowly become an identity.
Now, you’re probably thinking, ‘It’s easy for an established mega-brand like Apple.’ That’s an understandable comment, but you don’t need to compete with Apple – you just need to learn from their successes.
Even if you’re a tiny startup, just remember, it’s not just about what you sell: it’s about what you believe in. Seth Godin put it best when he said, ‘Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories that you tell.’
Again, we’re talking about one of the most recognizable brands on the planet – but remember, one day, they were as tiny as any startup. And, since Starbucks opened the doors to its first coffee shop in Seattle back in 1971, the brand has completely reinvented the whole business. They now have over 21,000 stores worldwide.2
The sheer ubiquity of Starbucks is a major part of its appeal, but then again, plenty of competing coffee brands have a huge presence, too. This alone makes Starbucks a fascinating study in customer loyalty.
The temptation is to suggest that Starbucks simply ‘does’ coffee better than its competitors. And while product quality is always a part of the equation, the notable thing about Starbucks is that they’ve subtly transitioned coffee from being a product into an experience.
As branding Priya Raghubir once said in an interview with the Huffington Post, “People really have [gotten] to know Starbucks as the quintessential coffee shop, where they can sit and be welcome over a cup of coffee.
“The enduring brand loyalty is about the core offerings, which is not just coffee. It is the experience of going to Starbucks.”
And this just underscores the potential rewards of going beyond accepted industry norms. Coffee shops looked a little different before Starbucks changed the game.Subtle changes and additional extras – comfortable sofas and free WiFi, for example – have actively encouraged customers to feel welcome, stay longer, drink more coffee, and enjoy the unique Starbucks experience.
It’s easy to see loyalty and engagement with a certain brand as a cool, rational business decision, particularly in the B2B sector. But, at best, this is a partial view and, at worst, it’s a complete mischaracterization. The examples above are predominantly B2C, but their lessons ring true for businesses of all shapes and sizes.
High-retention brands which keep their customers engaged recognize that loyalty is largely based on emotion: the way you feel when you interact with a brand.
The best way to build loyalty and engagement among your customer base – as evidenced by some of the world’s biggest companies – is to consistently deliver a positive experience that delivers on a rational and emotional level.
Be clear what you stand for. Deliver great service every time, and fix things up where you fall short. Don’t be afraid to change the game. And remember to treat your customers as the real, living, breathing people they are!
Por Lacey Ford, Chief Executive Advisor at Wheelhouse Advisors Inc.