Brand Strategy Retail Marketing

Why marketers and consumers have different perspectives of the reciprocity rainbow

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By Julien Normand, Global strategy lead

May 29, 2024 | 7 min read

As part of The Drum’s Retail focus, strategist Julien Normand reveals how marketers and consumers rarely share the same perspective on loyalty and reciprocity.

Customer loyalty misplaced as reciprocity

Reciprocity is a powerful human bias. When someone acts kindly toward us, we feel compelled to respond in kind. We return the favor because we feel indebted; we feel “much obliged” to do so. Reciprocity is more than a civilized social norm, it’s believed to be an evolutionary trait that helped early humans cooperate, increase their odds of survival, and ultimately create societies. Thus, reciprocity can naturally be found everywhere in our lives, influencing every interaction. In marketing, reciprocity is like a rainbow: its appearance shifts depending on our viewpoint.

Reciprocity as seen by marketers

As marketers, we often become enamored with our creations. Slide after slide, we craft an alternate, distorted world where the brand’s role comically overshadows genuine human insight. Sometimes, we ascend too high on the benefit ladder, developing a hero complex: we no longer just sell products; we enhance lives. We convince ourselves that our products or services delight consumers by fulfilling their expressed and unexpressed needs and solving problems they weren’t even aware of. Reciprocity appears like a rainbow in the dark, as we assume that grateful consumers will reward our brands with loyalty and advocacy.

Of course, delivering a superior experience is preferable, and advocacy is more likely when people try new things. But consumers do not switch brands as one might convert to a new religion and never look back. If some do, they likely represent a mere rounding error in any brand growth percentage. Instead, we now understand that consumers exhibit divided loyalty: they are polygamously loyal within a certain repertoire of brands. The more they buy from the category, the larger their repertoire. The less they buy, the more likely they are to choose the category best-seller and limit the size of their repertoire. These are empirical patterns discovered by Andrew Ehrenberg over half a century ago and replicated by his successors at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute and others ever since.

“Consumers are busy people. They have hundreds of thousands of brands vying for their attention. [...] Therefore, the choice of brand is trivial compared with the decision of whether or not to purchase from the category,” summarized Byron Sharp in How Brands Grow.

Recip rainbow

Reciprocity as seen by normal people

Normal people exchange their money for a product or service. Reciprocity occurs when the product or service delivers on its promise. Whether it avoids pitfalls or delivers a fantastic experience, it’s just returning the favor.

In the minds of brand trialists, an association forms between the brand, the product or service, and the experience. “Kids finished their plate.” “The deodorant didn’t stink and didn’t leave any stains on my shirt.” “They delivered on time.” While positive, these experiences are too premature to be called reciprocity.

Let’s look at the same rainbow, and maybe, just maybe, we can start holding hands

Marketers should temper their expectations about consumer gratitude. True loyalty is rare. While we should strive for excellent product experiences, that alone is not enough. It’s akin to holding the door for a stranger at the grocery store and hoping for romance in return. The odds are better than if you had slammed the door, but there’s still a long journey ahead.

To see the same rainbow as consumers, we need to meet them where they are and adopt their viewpoint. During my first marketing class, which occurred too long ago to mention here, our instructor wrote something on the board that initially made me yawn and roll my eyes: “Marketing is placing consumers at the center of the company.” All students and non-marketing folks naturally dismiss this as fluffy platitudes. Only as an experienced marketing professional do you realize how few companies genuinely try to understand their consumers. It’s not just a platitude; it’s a guiding star–a mindset described by Mark Ritson as market orientation, which “challenges a manager to recognize the fundamental truth that a) consumers are the source of a company’s success, but b) these consumers inevitably see the world very differently from the employees who devise the strategies aimed at them.”

Market orientation helps nip preconceived notions about consumer behavior in the bud. Research should encompass actual purchase data (behaviors), not just what consumers say they feel and think (attitudes), which are easily misinterpreted or manipulated to confirm existing biases.

Don’t be swayed by research claiming that “when consumers try our product, they love it and convert.” Such statements are ubiquitous, often serving as epitaphs in the ever-expanding graveyard of new product failures. They typically reflect survey participants responding favorably to the team interviewing them, perhaps out of reciprocity.

Instead, research should provide sobering perspectives on the role of brands in people’s lives. In a statement that might roll the eyes of a layperson but enlighten a marketing expert, Jeremy Bullmore noted that “mostly, people either don’t much like things or do quite like things. And the things they quite like, they tend to buy quite regularly because they quite like them.’ How do we then make sure that our brands are quite liked and bought quite regularly?

Ehrenberg-Bass’ market-based asset theory suggests two areas of focus: mental and physical availability:

Mental availability: Brands need to be consistently reminded to category buyers to increase the odds of repeat purchases. This moves the brand from being “the red one from last time that the kids loved” to a deep and broad network of associations linking brand assets and category cues. Consumers are ‘cognitive misers’ who need help retrieving memories of their past brand experiences. Brands must become ‘easy to mind.’

Physical availability: Brands need to be as noticeable and purchasable as possible. This means more stores, more shelf space, visibility both offline and online, longer opening hours, and more payment options, among other things. A positive brand memory will never overcome the friction caused by a product being hard to buy. ‘It’s essential because buyers do not have strong preferences even for the brands they are loyal to; they are happy to buy alternatives from within their personal repertoires (and they regularly do),’ warns Byron Sharp. Brands must become ‘easy to find.’

As marketers, we can, and perhaps should, aim for loyalty as a form of reciprocity. But the surest way to be graced with this rainbow is usually not to overwhelm consumers with superiority and innovation. The Ehrenberg-Bass Institute also found that a third of the products voted by UK consumers as “Product of the Year” disappeared after a year, and half of them after two.

People won’t be loyal to the fleeting memory of a brand trial. That’s a necessary but not sufficient condition to observe a reciprocity rainbow. People will be loyal to the brands they can think of, and they can find.

By understanding and implementing these principles, we can start to align our marketing strategies with the real behaviors and preferences of consumers rather than relying solely on the idealistic notions of brand loyalty and consumer gratitude. This alignment not only fosters a more realistic approach to consumer relationships but also paves the way for more sustainable brand success.

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