Losing brand loyalty? Maybe you never had it

The themes of disruption and disintermediation are woven into the fabric of nearly every executive-level marketing discussion these days. Ours is a landscape where turmoil has become the only constant, and CMOs at even the most established brands — perhaps especially at the most established brands — are questioning the stability of their customer relationships.

The rise of the direct brand economy and associated cultural shifts have prompted many an industry observer to wonder, “Is brand loyalty dead?”

It seems like a valid question, but it’s also one that’s based on a flawed assumption. To wonder whether disrupted brands are seeing a decline in loyalty among customers supposes that such loyalty ever truly existed. One might just as effectively argue that the challenger brands gaining market share from established leaders are doing so by building — not stealing — a love of brand that incumbents never fostered in the first place.

When brands lose their way

When our industry discusses disruption, the conversation often centers on technology. But today’s challenger brands bring more than new technology to the party. In fact, the most successful ones share a very simple characteristic that’s not the least technological in nature: They care what the customer wants. In this very simple way, they’ve created a new value exchange between consumers and brands, and many incumbents have been slow to catch up.

Most of the incumbent brands that are feeling the deepest disintermediation repercussions had a window of time prior to the rise of challenger brands in which consumer desire for a new sort of brand relationship became evident — and they failed to act. Perhaps these brands weren’t listening closely enough to consumers, or perhaps heard them loud and clear and consciously decided to ignore them. But whatever the case, the moment in which a brand chooses not to listen or not to act on consumer desires is the moment in which it loses its way.

We’ve certainly seen an acceleration of broken brand-consumer connections within today’s brand-direct economy, but this isn’t by any means a new phenomenon. Consider Kodak, for example. It was the unfortunate early poster child of disruption in the digital age. It wasn’t that Kodak didn’t see the digital camera coming. (In fact, it invented the digital camera.) The company’s leaders just didn’t believe it would catch on. Furthermore, the company had a monopoly on film that it had no interest in eroding. In deliberately failing to evolve alongside technology and consumer demand, the company neglected its core brand identity, built around the Kodak Moment. The company failed to maintain customer centricity and live up to its brand promise. That was its true downfall.

Overcoming complacency

Most executives today know the cautionary tale of Kodak, and yet so many are still stumbling in the same manner. Consider Gillette, for example. Only a decade ago, the brand giant controlled an impressive 70% of the U.S. razor market. That kind of dominance usually suggests a deep underlying brand loyalty among consumers. But as it turned out, its relationship with a large swath of consumers was merely skin deep. Enter Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club — two startups with the simple idea of low-cost razor subscription services — and Gillette saw the market share it had been building for more than 100 years plummet by more than 20% in less than 10 years.

Today, Gillette’s desperation to regain its footing with consumers is palpable. The company has launched a “me too” subscription model, yes, but it’s also taken to some extreme messaging via its “The Best a Man Can Be” campaign. No matter how you feel about the campaign message itself, the timing of the brand’s decision to ride the social consciousness wave (i.e., when its market share is tumbling) can easily come off as disingenuous. But perhaps more important: Did Gillette launch its campaign because it listened to its consumers and determined this was what they wanted and needed? Or did it throw a Hail Mary and alienate its core consumers?

Only time will tell how Gillette’s gamble plays out on its bottom line. But one thing is for sure: The days of salvaging a brand’s market share via PR stunts is over. If a brand’s messaging isn’t based on an intimate understanding of its consumers and isn’t backed up by long-term action and commitment, it will fail.

Fostering brand love in the digital age means understanding and respecting consumers, along with their personal values. Brands can’t just listen. They have to act. They must be authentic in their brand and corporate values. Tuning out the messages you don’t like or that don’t fit with your previously crafted brand and product roadmap is no longer an option. Marketers today have to ask the hard questions about their customer relationships and brand value, and they have to be prepared to scrap existing plans if the answers that come back are unexpected.

As in life, love and loyalty are precious phenomena, and not always easy to achieve or maintain. Today’s business leaders and marketing executives have to invest in relationships and be committed to making them work.

Ericka Podesta McCoy is chief marketing officer of Resonate