Art & Commerce: Persistence of Memory

Forget the marketing schemes, writes Craig Kleber.
Personal experience defines brand loyalty
Loyalty in marketing is not only one of the most-abused and lied-about terms; it’s a second-class goal. Loyalty has many permutations, such as enforced, bought, conditional or loosely held. A dog waiting for dinner, a soldier carrying out orders and fickle customers can be “loyal”–but is this the ideal situation for a brand/customer relationship?
Let’s hope not, or our expectations have reached new depths. What about commitment, support, following and even advocacy? Few brands can hope to win such franchise, but those that do should be seen as the gold standard.
For example, Disney, Starbucks and Apple have customers who really believe in and recommend them. How the great brands achieve this is not formulaic; nothing inspired ever is. They do, however, share certain attributes–mystique, attitude (perceived or actual), consistency of qualities, differentiation and so on. Foremost is the way they provide identity for their users. Somehow these brands elicit personal ownership. They are felt, explored and shared to the point that a person will defend and sell them–without being paid. The brand is the strategy, not some mechanism or program. The brand experience is deeper and, whatever role it plays in the consumer’s life, it has meaning.
In trying to get higher commitment from customers, it might pay to drop the marketing cynicism and look at the brand areas that have the support we can only dream of. Pro sports teams, with their army of fans, come to mind first. But the greatest brand commitment of all is the American university alumni system and the total investment it instills in people. The lifetime value of these consumers to their colleges is immeasurable.
Long before they’ve applied, kids are desperately seeking to get into their chosen schools–Harvard, Yale, wherever. On campus, they become infused with school spirit. But the real benefits are reaped after graduation. Those alumni who become the advocates (no small number) go on to regularly donate money; they raise funds, talk up the school, recommend it, send their kids there, even support it from the grave with legacies. Schools use sports teams or snob value as a hook. But the bottom line is, people are committed through experience, not through tickets to the big game.
To influence the highest-value customers, marketing directors should put the brand and its personal customer experience at the fore. For instance, people loved Volkswagen’s “Da Da Da” spot because it triggered their personal experiences with this great brand. People feel strongly about Volkswagen; the company has meaning and its advertising plays a role. And whether it’s big-ticket items like Jeeps and Range Rovers or simple things like Heinz ketchup, commitment, support and advocacy are the keys.
To elicit this commitment, the message (i.e., the brand) is what matters, and it should be delivered in whatever form works best. This is highlighted every time my wife and I get donation requests from our universities. The stuff I get is better produced than hers. I attended a prestigious U.K. university, and I send nothing. My wife attended a recognized institution in the U.S., and she gives every time. The difference is, my school is asking for loyalty and hers is triggering the experience.
Craig Kleber is planning director at Rubin Postaer and Associates in Santa Monica, Calif.