What does it really take to cement brand loyalty? In addition to time, patience, commitment, and sound brand management, what else can marketing executives do to build and maintain brand loyalty? Especially in an age when the consumer has so many choices—too many choices—in an increasingly global marketplace?

Fundamental principles of brand building still apply. Even in an age of Internet marketing and advanced technology, the basics must still be in place. There is no speeding up this process. Nor are there any shortcuts.

A proper identity must be developed, one that resonates with the customer and reflects the core of the company and its products. The brand identity then becomes the springboard for unique positioning and differentiation. Too many products and services are viewed as commodities in the marketplace; the truly strong brands stand out and stand alone among all of their competitors.

For a brand to remain viable...

  • It must be nurtured and remain consistent at every touch point, inside the company and outside.

  • Each and every employee must be a brand ambassador.

  • For the customer, every touch point—from a company's products or services, to the packaging of those products/services, the business's Web site, its letters and special offers, its call center interactions with customers, its advertising and promotions—must all work together to create a cohesive brand experience.

  • Companies must realize that positive experience in one channel does not create total experiential branding: The sum of all of the customer touch points, if properly managed and aligned, do.

It's truly amazing to note the number of companies that continue to acknowledge that outstanding customer service is an absolute must, but then fail to provide it. Customers continually complain about the lack of responsiveness to their questions or needs, whether they call or email a company.

In repeated surveys, the American Customer Satisfaction Index, since its inception in 1994 at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, has demonstrated that companies have not delivered improved customer service over the past decade. Whether emails or phone messages are slowly or never responded to, unsatisfactory responses to problems are given, or expert information is lacking... this is a huge, continuing problem.

Delivering a high level of customer service, and the ensuing "fabled" customer satisfaction, is one of the most powerful differentiators in the marketplace—cementing brand loyalty when all other touch points are consistent.

The two aspects of service that customers consistently say they value most? Reliability and responsiveness. Constantly meeting, or exceeding, customer expectations in service yields great rewards for companies.

If companies think they are in the business of selling products and services, they should think again. They are actually in the relationship-building business.

Building strong customer relationships—B2B or B2C—directly correlates to the development of brand loyalty. When the customer becomes emotionally rather than merely intellectually vested in a brand, loyalty to the brand becomes cemented.

Loyalty and Brand Equity

Loyalty is intangible, yet incredibly valuable, since over time it builds great brand equity. Brand equity goes right to the value of every company. In fact, brand equity is sometimes the most decisive factor in assessing company value.

In a campaign developed in the early '90s by Dow Jones to promote the Wall Street Journal, it issued the following statement: "A brand or corporate image is not something that can be seen, touched, tasted, defined or measured. Intangible and abstract, it exists solely as an idea in the mind. Yet it is often a company's most precious asset...in a world of parity products and services, nothing can tilt things more dramatically in your favor."

Strong brands enjoy distinct advantages:

  • They are perceived as effectively differentiated from their competitors.

  • They satisfy consumer needs on both intellectual and emotional levels.

  • They consistently deliver on their brand promise, thus they consistently deliver value. When brands resonate with customers at this level, there is a powerful emotional relationship in place. This is the key element that leads to loyalty.

True brand differentiation is the order of the day here. And that centers completely on a company's ability to meet customer needs on an emotional rather than merely an intellectual level. It also points to being able to execute customer service at a consistently high level.

Let's face it: Product or service differentiation features, no matter how innovative, can be copied in a relatively short period of time by competitors. Then, competitors seeking their own advantage will take that a step further and add additional bells and whistles to their product or service offerings. So a major determinant of loyalty for the customer centers on the intangibles.

Think about it:

  • There are computer companies, and then there is Apple. The Apple customer is passionately attached to the brand. An entire culture, one that transcends national boundaries, has been formed by Apple devotees. The iPod has brought many more consumers to the Apple brand.

  • There are coffee shops, and then there is Starbucks. Its concept of creating "A Third Place"—not home and not the office—resonates with the public.

  • There are many lines of athletic footwear, and then there is Nike. "Just Do It" hits the mark with the customer.

Some marketers seem to be of the opinion that the consuming public is more fickle today. While noting that there are many more brands, products and services flooding the marketplace, we should observe that basic customer needs have always been, and continue to be, the same. The customer will buy a company's products or services if there is true or perceived differentiation, a high level of service and consistent value. Remember: loyalty can't be bought. It must be earned.

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image of Ted Mininni

Ted Mininni is president and creative director of Design Force, a leading brand-design consultancy.

LinkedIn: Ted Mininni