Loyalty vs. Preference

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I love it when a marketing exec working for a corporate entity boasts that their brand inspires customer loyalty. Or that it did. Or that it ever will.

Let me tell you something about loyalty: It doesn't usually apply to corporations. It doesn't apply to brands either. Not even great ones. You may think that it does, but it doesn't.

(Not unless these companies or brands are heavily involved in some kind of cause that their customers feel very deeply about.)

If anything, customer loyalty applies to people, but that's about it.

Let me elaborate:

When I lived in France, I had a friendly relationship with my neighborhood butcher. With the baker down the street. With the pharmacist on the corner. With the owner of the cafe half a block away. These were all small business owners. We knew each other by name. I couldn't tell you what their businesses were called. The cafe was like every other cafe in Cannes. So was the pharmacy. So was the boulangerie. So was the epicerie. But I knew these people because I walked by their stores every day. Because I shopped there instead of driving to the Monoprix (think Publix or Bi-Lo or WalMart).

I wouldn't say that any of these people were my friends. It isn't like I had beers with them on the weekend or anything. They didn't invite me to their children's birthday parties. I didn't send them Christmas cards. They were just shop owners and I was a customer. But because I felt a sense of responsibility towards them as members of my neighborhood's business community, I also felt a certain sense of loyalty towards them.

When I needed to buy a head of lettuce or a tube of toothpaste or AA batteries or stamps, I didn't even consider going elsewhere. If a competitor had ever opened shop across the street from them, I don't care how cool their store looked and felt, how much cheaper they were, or how much friendlier, I would have felt guilty making the switch. I would have felt like I had betrayed them somehow. And so I would have stuck by my butcher and baker and pharmacist and cafe owner.

Out of loyalty.

Living in the US, where almost every store now is owned by a corporate entity, it is more difficult to run into instances like these. Still, I am loyal to my barber (he owns is shop). I am loyal to my triathlon store (yep, locally owned). I am loyal to my car mechanic (his name is painted in big letters on the building). I am loyal to my personal trainer.

I would feel guilty getting my hair cut anywhere else. Buying a new triathlon bike anywhere else. Getting my car worked on anywhere else.

From a business perspective, I also find myself being loyal to the web designers, graphic artists, copywriters and consultants I routinely work with. They are my extended business family.

Loyalty implies a relationship.

With people.

With specific individuals.

People you like and feel a responsibility towards.

As much as I like their products and services, I feel no responsibility towards HP or Volkswagen or Verizon.

What marketing execs at Bi-Lo or Publix or Apple or Starbucks call customer loyalty is anything but.

The term you are looking for right about now is wishful thinking.

The reality of a brand's success and apparent customer loyalty comes to down to little more than choice.

Or rather, preference.

PC vs. Mac. Ford vs. Chevy. Trek vs. Specialized. Starbucks vs. Port City Java. More often than not, people choose one brand over another because they prefer it. Not because they feel a sense of loyalty towards it.

They prefer the experience of working with a PC over working with a Mac. They prefer the flavor of a Starbucks coffee drink to that of another coffee shop. They prefer Chevy over Ford because they are more reliable or better designed or just because their favorite NASCAR driver drives one. They prefer Specialized bikes over Trek because they are so much more fun to ride. They prefer to wear A&F or Levis or Calvin Klein because it says something about how they wish to be seen by others... but this speaks to identity, self expression, comfort, expectations of quality, and preference. Not... loyalty.

If a company is both smart and lucky, it will tap into that expression of preference and ensure that the very things that people prefer will be at the core of their customers' experience every single time they interact with their brand or products.

They will ensure that in a world of ever shifting preferences, their customers will always favor them over their competitors.

This has nothing to do with loyalty.

Case in point: Three miles from my house are two grocery stores. One is a Bi-Lo. The other is a Publix. The Bi-Lo is a bit dirty. The floors never look clean. The lighting is harsh. The aisles are messy. The cashiers aren't particularly friendly. The baggers still haven't figured out that cans shouldn't be packed on top of fruit. It takes way to long to check out. And then there is the damn Bonus Card.

Call it a rewards card. Call it an inner circle card. This is the card you scan to pay a special regular price for your food. If you don't have a bonus card, you pay more than market value for many of your items.

In other words, the card gives you the privilege to pay normal price for items that are otherwise tagged with a hefty premium.

The Bonus Card is supposed to promote customer loyalty. It is supposed to make you feel like you're part of the club.


As if I didn't have enough crap in my wallet or dangling from my keychain as it is.

As if I didn't already have to jump through enough hoops every day.

As if I really need to be nickled and dimed by a friggin second rate grocery store every time I need to go buy a bottle of children's Tylenol at 11:30 at night.

Ask me about my experience shopping at Bi-Lo. Come on. Don't be shy.

Five hundred meters away is a Publix. It's about the same size as the Bi-Lo. It's about the same distance from my house. It carries about the same items. Heck, it's probably 10% more expensive than Bi-Lo. But I don't care because I like shopping there.

The difference between Publix and Bi-Lo?

The Publix parking lot isn't littered with trash. The carts aren't twenty dirty shades of faded red and gray. The store is impeccable throughout. The floors are shiny. The lighting is clean and fresh. The employees are friendly, helpful, and polite. The carts always look clean and new. The produce is always fresh. The store is neat. The baggers separate my produce and my canned goods. Checking out is fast and painless. I shop there, and I feel good about myself. I know it sounds stupid, but it's true. I actually feel happy shopping there.

My experience is better at Publix than at Bi-Lo in absolutely every way.

And perhaps more importantly, Publix doesn't try to coerce me into some sort of dubious "loyalty" by forcing me to carry a Bonus Card.

I could say that because the folks at Publix treat me so well, because I love shopping there, because everything about Publix makes me feel loyal to them, but it would all be wishful thinking. I shop there simply because I prefer to shop there.

I shop there because my experience there is better than it is at Bi-Lo.

Spending any time at all trying to figure out how to create customer loyalty for any business whose owners aren't interacting directly with their customers on a daily basis is a gargantuan waste of time.

You want to attract and retain more customers? You want to be best in class? Simple: Strive to achieve such a level of excellence in customer experience that every shopper who sets foot in your store or interacts with your product or service will recommend it to his or her family and friends.


Have a great Thursday, everyone. :)

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