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.

Words Worth Repeating #7: Charlie Sheen (yes, Charlie Sheen)

"I don't pay them for sex. I pay them to leave." – Charlie Sheen When asked by a judge why a man of Sheen's stature would need to pay for sex, this was his reply.

While repugnant, it's fascinating. In two short sentences, Sheen lays out what behavioral science identifies as the two basic motivations driving all human behavior: adding pleasure (in this case, sex) and removing pain (in this case, leaving). Too many brands think their role is to do one or the other. When in reality, they need to do both. But at different times. The key is knowing when.

Or, if you want to strip away the science, maybe the lesson from this quote is that brands need to understand that sometimes what customers want most is for them to go away. Even their favorite brands. At least once in a while.

The 12 Virtues of Smaller Thinking, Vol. 01

Over the years we PARAGRAPHER's have, as a group, become passionate about a few things. The spinach salad at the deli across the street, short commutes to the office and experiencing four distinct seasons of weather are among them. But we also know that things often change over time, so we fancy that our minds are kept open to new experiences. And that we might never submit our improvisational spirit to one way of thinking. There is, however, one tenet that continually pervades our collective work. This is the philosophy of smaller thinking. Smaller thinking is the way we approach our questions and our answers. It's how we choreograph our meetings. It's how we designed our office. Truth is, the whole world has become a smaller, more nimble place. We believe that our way of thinking about marketing, branding and advertising must also evolve in similar ways. Gone are the days of huge initiatives that take months or years to fabricate and that are inevitably out of date at the moment of their inception. Awesome -- we were finally able to use "inception" in a post.

To make this school of thought crystal clear for you, the valued visitor, we've identified 12 virtues of smaller thinking and we'd like to share them with you. One small, digestible bite at a time. Over the course of 2011, we'll make a free desktop wallpaper available each month that commemorates a single virtue of smaller thinking. Each one will be unique in appearance -- a PARAGRAPH original, if you will. The monthly desktop will serve as a way for interested parties to keep on the "smaller" path. We hope that you'll find the virtues interesting, useful and compelling enough to employ into your own working ways when the time is right.

Our first virtue of smaller thinking is Ambition. This is not the base ambition to conquer, as in sleazy win-at-all-costs partisan politics or menacing helmet-to-helmet hits on defenseless quarterbacks. It's the ambition, or inner drive, to excel in our own right, in our own ways and because of our own skills, beliefs and direction. This drive forces us to DO more than THINK. So it follows that action is the inevitable result of this good-natured sense of ambition. This is a good thing, because without action, well, nothing gets done. There are entire business platforms built on this concept (link to Behance?). Sure we need to make good choices -- we'll get to that part in another post. For now, we just want to focus on doing more, learning from it and becoming better at what we do. Constantly. As we all start the new year with high hopes, let's focus on our ambition to do well by ourselves and by others. Before you know it, 2010 will be so last year.

The danger of targeting a demographic.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for stereotyping and over-generalizations. It’s kinda like putting your brain on auto-pilot. Look, over in the produce aisle... check out that senior citizen. He’s afraid of computers. That young, single woman two aisles over is probably really into shoes. Oh, that guy picking up the bottle of organic wheatgrass... that’s a liberal. He must hate America. See how easy that is?

Read More

Two simple paths to brand innovation.

The relationship between any product and its customer can be broken down into a series of steps starting with desire and ending with consumption. However the number of steps and the level of consumer involvement at each step differs for every product. Once you understand all the steps and the role of each, two forms of innovation can take place.

1. Remove Steps from the Process. This is the option that gets all the ink. Making things simpler for customers is the most basic form of innovation. Take a walk down the beer aisle and you’ll see what we mean. The twist off cap and the fridge pack are two examples. These innovations were born from the search for inefficiencies or unnecessary motions that could be removed from the process.

2. Add Steps to the Process. Although often overlooked, savvy marketers realize it can sometimes be beneficial to add steps to the process. Trader Joe's, Target and Fresh Market actually added an extra step for beer customers by allowing them to assemble their own six-packs. It takes more time and adds complexity to the shopping process. But it creates new value for customers.

So, there you go. Two simple paths to innovation. Now you give it a shot.

Competitive Collaboration

Competitive collaboration doesn't mean people are best friends. On the other hand, it's not defined as enemies squaring off. What it does imply is a recurring dialogue of sorts. Usually both parties benefit from a relationship such as this. They're pushed beyond where they might have otherwise gone on their own. Look at some of the people whom you admire (who do some of the same things you do) and try to make your version better. But take the high road -- this doesn't require a formal letter. It's not a duel. But it might be the spark that you both need: an unlikely meeting, a rivalry, a kind note, an enduring friendship, a nasty note, or just better work. Just think what we'd have missed without these competitive collabo's.

+ Magic & Larry + 'Pac & Biggie + Dan & Dave (not us, the Olympians) + Picasso & Matisse + Ali & Frazier

Miss Competence and Miss Controversy.

The one thing that the whole Miss California dust-up has taught us is that controversy is powerful... sometimes more powerful than competence. Her divisive statements forced people to take sides. It made those passionate about the issue speak up and join in the conversation.

Miss (long-forgotten) North Carolina was the most competent of the contestants. She left with the crown. But Miss California will be leaving with more speaking engagements and endorsement deals – for better or worse.

Being competent is rarely enough.

Establishing a gifting program.

Ever since Denny’s free breakfast give away, it seems like restaurant chains like McDonald's and KFC are falling all over themselves to give out freebies. Let’s be honest. All these freebies are just glorified sampling. And samples are free. So I shouldn’t have a problem with them. But I kind of do.

Sampling is a negotiation. The proposition: you give me your time and consideration and I’ll give you a treat. All I expect in return is that you spend your money with me. Please? (You kind of owe me.)

Is tacitly guilting a person into doing business with you a sustainable model?