shitting on idea of brand loyalty



“But I will find new habits, new thoughts, new rules. I will become something else.”




I admit. I have always hated the discussion surrounding brand loyalty (love, purpose, passion, etc). I always felt it was misleading and misled.

  • Misleading: suggests passionate links to a brand are relatively commonplace and a brand could assume a place in people’s lives equivalent to real love or purpose
  • Misled: if a business believes in brand loyalty they tend to treat loyal costumers, & initiatives, differently, i.e., they seek to maintain rather than win their business every day. It’s an odd version of complacency.


I would argue the biggest mistake we make with regard to discussing loyalty is to suggest it is a one dimension blob of ‘loyal people.’ The truth is any brand loyalty you can build is dimensional and not particularly deep <the latter thought is important>:


  • Situational loyalty: my go-to brand in certain situations
  • Default loyalty: all things being equal its easier to default to this brand
  • Contextual loyalty: in this environment this is my brand
  • Life moment loyalty: it could be age, specific event, current life focus you have (running, career, social circle, relationship, etc) that for that moment, or some extended period, in time that brand is your “it” brand


Note that none of those are deep ongoing loyalties. Loyalty is a fickle thing with regard to brands. Except maybe for some rabid few (and it isn’t really healthy for them even though you, as the business itself, love them).  Even Coke runs with a thread of fear that today is the day one of their ‘loyalists’ picks up a Pepsi, or a Fanta, or an Orange, & say “hey, this tastes really frickin’ good’ & then they pick it up again … and again … and, uh oh, ‘what Coke loyalty?”


Loyalty in general is an interesting topic, but add in loyalty to a company or a product or service or a ‘brand’ and, well, now we officially move into mind boggling category. Mind boggling because there are actuarial models, theoretical models, regressive models and just about any model created all with the intent to ‘build’ loyalty and get more money from loyal customers <some models suggest that should be called “encouraging ongoing loyalty’>.

From a philosophical standpoint I dislike the suggestion I can actually buy loyalty.

Yeah yeah yeah … in every single one of those models’ power point presentation, somewhere in the first five pages of the 110 page presentation, you will always see the cursory ‘you have to earn loyalty.

It’s kind of a slight head nod to some ethical standard as well as a wink in the eye to the product has to be good enough and deliver upon expectations <to earn any type of loyalty>.

But. I guarantee that within two pages the expert will be launching into how to build loyalty and maximize profitability & sales from your buyer group <whether they are actually loyal or not>.


Regardless. Far too often I hear and see brand loyalty in terms of absolutes. And it is not. It is in degrees. It is dimensional. It is also measured in moments and not lifetimes.

Realistically <generalizing> loyalty is not something really earned. And I say that because ‘earned’ suggests that there is a balance of ‘loyalty credits’ available to you that you can sell off on occasion <mistakes or things that could be construed as ‘behavior of someone who is not loyal to me.’

Here is where I would end up on the ‘earned’ topic.

Fool me once, shame on you. <one credit used>

Fool me twice, shame on me. <no credits left>

Whoa. Once?  Yup. All this bullshit about ‘depth of loyalty’ is bullshit. Sure. I can be deeper than this ‘once’ I just mentioned, but 3? In a world seemingly rampant for choices, 3 seems a stretch.

The fanatic few.

Yes. There are always that fanatical few who wear the brand and live it, sleep it and … in general, these people freak other people out over their brand passion. But they don’t really do you any good. They are just some wackjobs that everyone recognized as completely bonkers over anything the brand may do and say <even if it makes no sense at all>. In other words, your most loyal of loyal simply freak people out.

Beyond that a brand has some people who tend to like you more than the other stuff they have purchased. This can be driven by a combination of price, quality and overall Maslow type stuff <this is the whole ‘brand is a badge I wear that says something about me to the people around me’ gobbledygook>.

An incentive program called Loyalty.

Brand loyalty is often more just an incentive program.  Think of it how like your parents treated you when you actually did clean your room. They made a deal with you.  They may not have said it in so many words but there became an understanding of a deal.

You cleaned your room and they didn’t nag or they gave you a nickel or they stayed out of your room. It was a deal. The best deals were ones that you <the child> actually had some vested value in and participated in building. I suggest that because people often think incentive is always about money. It’s not. One kid may have put the value on receiving an allowance if they sucked it up and cleaned their room, while another may have put the value on privacy <’stay out of my frickin’ room>.

Anyway. You get the point: this “deal” loyalty is NOT brand loyalty.

Brand loyalty marketing experts suggest things like “we are in the midst of a genuine marketing revolution, a revolution fueled by extraordinary data and amazing technology.” And “brand loyalty doesn’t just happen; you must make it happen.”

I don’t really know why, but that type of thinking and those words make me cringe.

Well. I guess I know why. It sounds manipulative. There are gobs of advice on how to consciously build loyalty. So much in fact that you may get the sense you can actually buy loyalty. That is sad. Sadly manipulative.

People are not stupid. In general we like gifts and as long as you are willing to give me gifts without asking for anything in return I will continue taking them from you. But please, please, do not misconstrue this for loyalty. I am just accepting unasked for gifts.


Here is where I argue with ‘brand loyalty’ program experts. The things they suggest has nothing to do with loyalty, but everything to do with smart business development – going after those who seem to like the shit you sell, reinforcing that someone made a good decision when they bought your shit and maybe, well, that’s it.

Reinforce a purchase decision.

Is it simply an argument in semantics that this isn’t loyalty? Maybe. But sometimes semantics defines your attitude. Because if you do agree with the semantics than you will also start thinking that all the personalization and one-to-one bullshit is simply a slightly higher level of reinforcing a purchase decision but you would be foolish to think this is creating any true deep loyalty.


Companies should do their best to build a stronger relationship between a customer and their initial purchase if possible. And, yes, you can be smart about how you go about doing it.

Doing things like:


  • First and foremost recognizing that a purchase, while discrete in terms of value creation, is not a discrete event in the lifetime of possible purchased value creation. Understand that one decision always begets another decision. And it is in your best interest to reinforce the initial decision. And of course … encourage another decision.


  • And while it pains me to say this, but it is true that not all customers are created equal. Recognizing those who purchase your shit a lot versus someone who doesn’t is just smart business. Inevitably someone who buys a lot of your shit knows fully well they are doing so and they like it when you step up to the plate and recognize that you know. There are gobs of models showing how you should manage the behavior <and attitudes> of return shoppers. Me? All I suggest is that your life becomes fairly easy if you simply admit that each purchase is important. And each purchase decision should be reinforced.


Oh.  Yeah. Another thing.

  • Always recognize that solving dissatisfaction is always the easiest way to create a stronger bond. This doesn’t mean you should treat dissatisfied customers better than your most frequent shoppers. Simply treat each situation as discrete and understand if you satisfy someone who at some point was dissatisfied, they like you exponentially more than one who has been plodding along generally satisfied with what they have been getting.





  • Loyalty isn’t about selling shit.

Whoa. Did I just type that? You betcha. The moment you start believing that loyalty should be equated to sales you will, well, end up trying to be a salesman. And someone who is loyal wants some love not some schmooze. Semantics again? Possibly.  But any kind of loyalty is about value … not sales.



I bring up all my concerns with how loyalty is approached because most company research <across all industries>  show that the most significant declines in loyalty were primarily due to the self-inflicted wounds of misguided, mistaken management.

And with that information Loyalty experts started lining up with some innovations and technology wizardry & customer centricity on how to fix their loyalty programs.

I would sit all these wizards down, pull out my situational, default, contextual  & Life situation loyalty scenarios, point out that “not all customers are created equal” and suggest having some multivariate, multidimensional, multi one-to-one algorithmic driven loyalty program is not the answer.

Would I set up a basic loyalty program to reward hi-purchasers of my stuff? Sure.

Would I do much more than that? Probably not. We are not really in an ongoing loyal world at the moment. I would focus on treating each purchases as a discrete event and maximize each purchase seeking to create the highest level of value I could WITH THE TRANSACTION. Call it “recency based loyalty building.”

In the end.

I think its slightly absurd we have always viewed brands as solid homes for people. The truth is they are more often as solid as a lily pad in a pond.  While a consumer may carefully seek out a lily pad to stand upon, sticking to it may not be a careful decision. It just may be a decision based on some situational loyalty, maybe an irrational desire or some emotional twist of fate, all of which are conducive to hopping on to another lily pad at any time. This captures the flimsiness of brand loyalty. Consumers are investing lower & lower emotional investment into their decisions meaning that they will float amongst brands more and more. There is no brand love & passion is fleeting and one lily pad is as good as another.

You can buy short term behavior, but you cannot buy long term is much safer to believe Long term behavior (which may or may not be loyalty) is dependent upon on attitude created from each short term transaction.

I think most brands would be much better off if they just assumed no one was particularly loyal to their brand and go out and create the highest value (functional, emotional, aspirational) with each purchase.


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Written by Bruce