Creating and retaining consumer emotional attachment to brands
Do people call you ‘big rig’? Do you tell yourself that you eat because you are unhappy and you are unhappy because you eat? Well, this isn’t an article that will help you understand why you have chosen to decrease the number of days you have on the planet in return for a doughnut. Overweight or not, you will be aware of the expression ‘love handles’. Love handles are the fat deposits above your hips that supposedly give your lover something to hold onto.
While this definition does an excellent job of taking the magic out of physical intimacy, it also does an equally excellent job of providing a wonderful analogy around human brand association. People love to ‘hold onto’ things, and brands are no different.
What is it about your brand that people can hold on to? Humans want connection. People look for ‘handles’ or something they can hold onto for everything they come in contact with. It makes sense that ‘brandles’ are the emotional components of a brand that avail themselves for human connection. The brands that we find ourselves most attracted to, and feel strongest about, have brandles that we love; ‘love brandles’. In marketing terms, love brandles are compelling emotional brand values that resonate with a market or market segment.
Most love brandles are well recognised by brand custodians, managers and the like, and accordingly these brands tend to position communication from this appealing and distinct place of relevance.
For instance, when Nudie Juice launched, it did so from a position of purity and simplicity: fruit squeezed into a bottle without anything else. “Naked, as nature intended.” This was done in a market flooded with nutrient-based sales lines like ‘antioxidant stack’ and ‘3xRDI of Vit C in 275ml’. Nudie quickly became the brand of choice in juice because people loved the very tangible values of purity and simplicity. Some of the other brandles included the fact that Nudie was a privately-owned Australian company, and the cuteness of the brand concept’s visual identity was for many a brandle in its own right. Only time will tell if the latest Nudie ventures (soup, yoghurt and a joint venture with Nestlé) will enhance its customers’ grips, or see them let go in confusion.
Another brand that has poured millions into its love brandles is surf-turned-fashion brand Quiksilver. Any surfer (myself included) will tell you that ‘Quiky’ has always stood for a hardcore, ‘go hard or go home’ brand experience. Seen as a brand that promotes unconventional excellence, Quiksilver has done a magnificent job of sustaining the things its market loves about it, while deviating heavily from its initial product offerings. Twenty years ago Quiksilver was all about wetsuits and short boards. Now it competes as one of the world’s top 10 lifestyle clothing companies.
Billabong is also in the same league, thanks to international western trends of casualness and anti-conservatism. While being seen as a much more mainstream brand, both Billabong and Quiksilver alike continue to pump significant money into the values that their customers love to hold on to.
In Quiksilver’s case, some of its critical brandles are surf legends. This being the case, it is important that the affection attributed to such a brandle is acknowledged and maintained. Arguably Australia’s most famous surfer, Tom Carroll, is one such legend. After signing a five-year contract with Quiksilver, making him surfing’s first ‘million-dollar man’ in 1989, Carroll has remained on the payroll and performed many brand associated functions, embodying many of the brand’s values through his personal and sporting behaviour. Billabong’s Dave Rastovich performs the very same role, despite the obvious disparity of behaviour between the two.
While most brands understand the importance of respecting the values that draw people to them, others make a fundamental relationship blunder that invariably leads to customers either willingly letting go of the brand, or left wondering where the brandle that they loved so much has gone.
One of the most obvious examples of a brand removing the very things that its market loved about it is Hyundai. In Australia Hyundai created a very popular name for itself as the cheap and cheerful small car brand. The 1990s were a boom time for the Hyundai brand with one of the best-ever selling small cars, the Excel. In 1996 the Excel was the only new car with a purchase price below $10,000. In the US, Fortune magazine voted the Excel product number 10 in the 1996 best products list. What a way to help your customers securely grab hold of your values of ‘affordable and efficient’.
In 2007, however, Hyundai is struggling through basic rookie relationship moves. Hyundai Global continues to send Korean nationals that have little experience with, or understanding about, the local market over here to run the Australian business. Due to this lack of historical understanding, the consistency of the relationship suffers. The love affair established between Hyundai and its customers based on a brandle of cost-efficiency has vanished, leaving customers without anything familiar or anything even realistic to hold onto. Hyundai has now positioned its brand as ‘another’ quality car company. It appears the new market has some affinity with the newer models; however, for others the brand is now just a place where their heart once lived.
Which other brands have removed the things that we hold dear about them? Unfortunately quite a few: McDonald’s, Starbucks and Vodafone are first to mind.
Healthy or otherwise, people loved “two all-beef patties, special sauce…” McDonald’s meant fun junk food. Some people liked the taste, but most loved the brand and held onto the value it projected of breaking the rules: ‘Tonight I am eating what I want’. In those days it didn’t matter if eating what you wanted had three to five times your daily allowance of fat in each Value Meal. It was the concept that mattered. Now McDonald’s is a mismatch of semi-health conscious wraps and ‘the son of Mac’. The lovers of the McDonald’s brand have been left hanging onto memories of a brand that once represented personal rebellion.
McDonald’s is very fortunate that our economy is one where the poor stay poor and the rich eat elsewhere. McDonald’s won’t lose its core market largely because its product is cheap and people don’t have a viable alternative. Hungry Jack’s and KFC are as identifiable as brands, but languish behind in store locations.
While on ‘locations’, Starbucks offered up some very tantalising love brandles when it hit the Australian market almost a decade ago. Consistent high quality coffee, a large range and comfortable store fitouts pulled many a consumer’s heartstring. The first few years after Starbucks opened its doors saw a well-executed buzz circulate through residential and commercial environments. It seemed everyone was all about the ‘moderately warm, weak, skim, grande mocha, no cream’. Quickly gaining strong emotional brand connection through quality, Starbucks decided to multiply stores and has now moved into all sorts of brand product extensions including t-shirts and its own record label.
Starbucks should turn the television on sometime and have a look at what resistance the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank face when they come to town. Starbucks was once loved and displayed brandles based on great coffee. In the US, Starbucks has lost the ‘quality’ brandle for a less attractive ‘availability’ brandle. Seen by many as once ‘great coffee’, it’s now ‘the only coffee’.
Profit-driven expansion will always present brand challenges. Shareholders demand optimal returns, and that means growth. Growth for Starbucks, and possibly Nudie, verges on globalisation. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says that globalisation is the “process by which the experience of everyday life …becomes standardised around the world”. As futile as it may seem, most people go to the brands they love to escape their routine, standardised lives.
Escaping from the norm is often a popular love brandle. One such example provided a remarkable telecommunication turnaround story in the mid nineties. Vodafone clearly left the mobile phone plan feast that Telstra and Optus were so heartily enjoying, and announced to all consumers that they could “do it your way”. This promise referred to the abolition of plans and more freedom in consumer choice.
The response was amazing. It didn’t take much to lure customers away from one of the brands they loved to hate (yes, ‘hate brandles’). So, people flocked in droves to Vodafone and its customer-centric offers. Similar to Nudie in being new, pure and simple, Vodafone had grown its own love brandles, only these also possessed great personal value. By beating the system, people stood to save money and get more. ‘More for less’ appears to work for more than just carpet retailers on late night television.
Just like the rug you bought based on an unbelievable deal, however, the Vodafone offers also wore out quickly and were ready for the scrap heap after 12 months. Vodafone withdrew its value-based love brandles with hundreds of thousands of customers holding on lovingly. Plans were back, value was diminished and, just like any love gone wrong, customers ran, licked their wounds and turned their backs for good.
Most organisations understand the value in engineering and resourcing love brandles. It makes good sense to develop things within a brand experience that people love to hold onto. What continues to amaze is the lack of respect marketers give to the strength of emotional connection that exists when a customer truly loves an element of a brand. Some replace the things that people love about a brand with an alternative, and some just pull them and stand mouth open as customers fall to the ground screaming. Psychologically, love is depicted as a cognitive and social phenomenon. This phenomenon is so strong that it finds Krispy Kreme customers literally dying to eat them. The smart money is on the brands that understand the love phenomenon and invest heavily in emotion, not promotion.