How To Nurture Loyalty Powered by Emotions?

British people have very powerful brand loyalty to Heinz beans and ketchup, Kellogg’s cornflakes and Yorkshire tea. Brands like these are not merely imprinting themselves on people’s minds or feelings, but are succeeding in making themselves unmistakable parts of the cultural landscape. 

There might be at least two kinds of customer loyalty. Both are drenched in emotion. Here’s what semiotics has to say about them. Semiotics is the study of consumer culture, from professional marketing comms to the tastes and behaviours of ordinary people.

navigating customer mindsPositive loyalty is very powerful indeed and can even get a brand or a business through periods of decision making that consumers didn’t ask for. For example, British people have very powerful brand loyalty to Heinz beans and ketchup, Kellogg’s cornflakes and Yorkshire tea. They might be persuaded to give up cornflakes at breakfast and switch to something that seems more filling and/or wholesome, like granola, but they are reluctant to switch to a different brand of cornflakes because ‘they aren’t the same’. 

Ideas about what cornflakes, beans, ketchup, tea and many other household favourites ‘should taste like’ or simply ‘should be’ come from the benchmarks set by certain brands, sometimes early in childhood. This is why Dairy Milk is still the top chocolate brand in the UK, despite changes of ownership, recipe and recent shrinkflation. This type of loyalty is steadfast and generates revenue but may require a lot of investment and take time to build up.

Brands like these are not merely imprinting themselves on people’s minds or feelings, one by one, through individual encounters with beans or ketchup. More than that, says semiotics, they succeed by making themselves unmistakable parts of the cultural landscape. That is, it’s not just that British children are fed cups of tea and baked beans on toast, forming strong emotional brand loyalties as they eat, each person separately from the next.

It is that they also encounter these brands as part of other people’s experience. They are part of our collective experience. In these brands, we acknowledge our shared experience of occasions for cups of tea, and we find comfort and acknowledgement that other humans are having a similar experience. We’re not alone. The consciousness of others is similar to ours, and the evidence is seen in their loyalty to certain brands. 

When people feel this loyalty very strongly, they will sometimes even act in a way that seems to be against their own interests. I wrote about this in the book Using Semiotics in Retail, where I described ‘The Legend of GameStop’. It concerns events in January 2021, in which the passionate and emotional stock-buying frenzy of millions of uneducated day traders sent the share price of a failing video games store to stratospheric heights. 

Needless to say, most people lost most of their money as the share price inevitably settled to a more realistic level, several months later. They seemed to have lost the battle. But if the longed-for prizes are joy, a feeling of empowerment and a vital sense of community, the casual GameStop investors won the war.

People described the 2021 investing rush as one of the best experiences they had ever had. GameStop as a word and an idea came to stand for far more than a video games store. It took on this new meaning of something precious which must be valiantly defended and carefully preserved at all costs.

Then there’s a negative kind of loyalty, where people are loyal because they have turned away from something. British households are experiencing a Cost-of-Living Crisis and are struggling with unaffordable bills and baskets of groceries.

Favourite brands start to feel rather precarious, no longer something to take for granted. This can lead to resentment on the part of consumers. They sometimes come to blame the brand for setting prices too high. 

They also sometimes blame the retailer, even though profit margins for retailers are much smaller. This can result in a loyalty rebound effect. The customer trades down to Aldi or Lidl copies of big brands, out of necessity. But because nobody likes feeling short of cash, they reframe it as a positive act of self-empowerment. 

Some of these people become vocal promoters of a popular cultural idea: “Aldi [or Lidl’s] version of [popular household brand] is just as good as the brand name version! Even though it is half the price. All these products are made by the same factory, they just put different packaging on and charge you for the name”. 

Also Read: Can an Algorithm Identify Your Customer’s Psychological Traits?

A similar kind of loyalty is found in groups of customers who are committed to some cause, such as vegans who are driven by rejection of animal cruelty. These vegans are not drinking soy milk (whether Alpro or a discount retailer equivalent) because they necessarily prefer the taste or want to encourage the growing of soy crops. They do it as an act of rejection in markets where cow’s milk dominates and persists in being the ‘normal’ semiotic sign that will show up wherever tea is served.

Both kinds of loyalty, the positive and the negative, are powered by emotion. So what should brands do about it? How can they use emotional intelligence to help people become loyal to their brand? Here’s a checklist of our options.

  1. Become part of the cultural landscape, whatever that means in each market, as the reference-point brand in breakfast food, entertainment, banking, tech or your own category. This means lots of product placement and awareness-raising. Use social media to your advantage. Get an ad agency to write a memorable strapline. Make moves with advertising and social media comms to own certain occasions of consumption, such as an afternoon snack or a frozen dessert consumed to relieve the suffering of unrequited love. This strategy invests your brand with meaning and is like pinning it to a pinboard that is full of consumers’ everyday cultural experiences. It’s within the range of their vision all the time and they know what it means, what it is for.
  2. Give consumers opportunities to feel empowered, to feel that they can change the world if they all pull together. Ordinary people, with no particular power or influence, are looking for chances to feel: optimism; bravery; a sense of being a pioneer; strength in numbers; victory. Observing consumers and their lives is my job. I see them over time and around the world. Right now, a lot of people are feeling scared. The climate is changing. Economic power seems to reside in the hands of a very few people, who do not necessarily have everyone’s best interests at heart. AI seems to threaten jobs. Despair and insecurity are no way to live. People will gratefully latch on to real opportunities to become part of something that allows them to feel courage and hope. If we own a small store, strengthen its links with the community. If we own a global brand, create a values-driven movement and invite consumers to be part of it so that they can experience hope and courage.
  3. Reward consumers who find encouragement and solace in feeling smarter than everyone else or feeling that they have a lot of integrity, or just feeling proud of their ability to assert their boundaries. It’s not just about offering cheaper prices when people are in a tight spot. Maybe you are even charging a higher price. The point is that you have identified a stream of deep consumer dissatisfaction and you are offering a rescue service. Here’s a lifeboat, in the form of Alpro soy milk or Aldi off-brand wheat breakfast cereal. Saving money is nice for the consumer. But worth just as much is the empowering feeling of ‘voting with your wallet’. It’s like voting guests off a reality show. “No” to inflated prices on household basics. “No” to animal products. Every shopper gets to vote these unwanted guests off their own personal reality show by choosing our brand or store.

Using Semiotics in Retail: Leverage Consumer Insight to Engage Shoppers and Boost Sales is Rachel’s second book. It won the award for Best Book on Sales & Marketing, Business Book Awards 2023. It is available worldwide, from Amazon, publisher Kogan Page and all good bookstores.