Brand Loyalty vs. Product Loyalty

In the mockumentary Best in Show, the film’s antics are interrupted midway by a quiet scene where Meg and Hamilton Swan, the neurotic power couple played by Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock, reminisce about how their mutual adoration for catalogs brought them together. Spilling all the details, they describe how their young love was first kindled by the likes of J.Crew and L.L.Bean (not to mention Starbucks and Mac laptops). Hamilton used to be such a huge “J.Crew person,” and both of them, we’re led to believe, still carry that mantle proudly. This vignette sets up brand loyalty as something of a lifelong affair, with the most steadfast followers displaying a kind of devotion that can seems almost religious. While the scene serves as fine proof that the “preppy” J.Crew aesthetic has become etched as fact into the shared American psyche, it also misleads us by assuming that brands possess some kind of intrinsic power over people. Marketers should beware of making the same mistake.

It can feel like a matter of instinct, the way we gravitate toward certain brands and reject others. And it often seems as if a brand’s larger message, the lifestyle it promotes, can capture a person’s imagination. But in our complex marketplace, instinct is not that simple. In the past, brand loyalty might have given a built-in advantage to companies able to own a particular a niche. And when we only had a handful of stores in town to rely on, familiarity with a brand name served as a helpful starting point. But the process of winning and keeping customers has been complicated by the fact that we simply have more alternatives than ever before. Now, we’re captivated by individual products that we can experience for ourselves.

As Fast Company’s Co.Design said just a few weeks ago, brand monogamy makes less sense in a marketplace that encourages us to explore our options:

“Today’s consumers are stingier with their brand loyalty than in the past because they can afford to be: they are burdened only by an abundance of choice and knowledge.”

As a result, we’d expect to find more people asking “Where can I find the product I want?” instead of “What can I find at my favorite store?” But if product loyalty is the priority for more consumers these days, not everyone has taken the memo to heart. Many marketers still seem to idealize an abstract notion of brand loyalty, assuming their most important task is to reach customers on that higher level. This comes despite recent warnings that companies should be striving to connect with customers through authentic, personalized interactions, not one-way brand messages.

During a recent visit to our local J.Crew, for instance, I saw the store embracing its core image with fresh vigor. No longer merely preppy in a timeless sort of way, it’s become downright preptastic. A charicature of its former self, its current look and feel can only be described as bedazzled-bohemian-chic. (You’ll know it when you see it.)

Amid those efforts to magnify the brand, the products I found in the store were without. My mission was simple: find a few little shirts suited for the warmer weather now creeping into North Carolina. What I found was an armful of Extra-Small tank tops, all of which were too baggy. At 5’11” with a reasonable amount of muscle, baggy is the last thing I had expected or hoped to find. So, while the store used to be a reliable place to pick up an item or two that I could fold into my own style, it now preaches a notion of fashion that doesn’t work for me. And because I’m one of those product-loyalists who will move on to the next store to find what I want, the case for brand loyalty just took another hit.

That’s not to say the store isn’t doing well. Sure, it’s been guarding against the sales drops that retailers have experienced lately, but according to buzz, J.Crew is staying afloat in a still turbulent economy because it offers customers good value for the price and an array of (ahem) “classic” items.

But it does raise the question of how long some companies -- and their marketers -- can expect to build a future on good old-fashioned brand loyalty while others focus on diversifying, innovating, and experimenting through products that excite us. Too many marketers assume that brand loyalty drives product popularity when it’s the other way around: customers fall in love with products first and brands second. Where would Apple be as a brand without the iPhone or iPad, for example? The truth is that die-hard fans become so for concrete reasons. If you assume that brand loyalty emerges out of anything other than loyalty toward experiences and products, you’ve lost touch with your audience.