The Unconscious Side of Brand Loyalty and Why it Matters

by Amy Charles & Joel Weinberger

No one in marketing would dispute the importance of customer loyalty to a brand or product. It leads to repeat sales and indicates that the consumer holds the brand in high regard. Further, if a consumer is loyal to a brand or product, he or she will recommend it to others, thereby increasing the customer base. So it behooves brands and marketers to understand what underlies brand loyalty. What does loyalty mean to consumers? And how do we assess it?

There is the obvious. We can ask consumers to define the concept and then ask them to assess how loyal they are to a brand/product. This can produce important information. But that is not all there is to loyalty. Loyalty is an emotional concept with strong unconscious components as well. These are not measurable through direct report. People conceptualize loyalty associatively as well as cognitively and rationally. And they are largely unaware of those associations. These associations nonetheless affect their feelings and reactions to brands. A classic example is Classic versus New Coke (pun intended). The research in support of New Coke was all self-report. It did not take into account the associations people had to Classic Coke and the emotional attachment people had to those associations. As a result, a major mistake was made.

So how do we measure unconscious associations? One way is through a reaction time technology. We present associations that we think ought to be triggered by the concept we are trying to understand associatively. These would include positive as well as negative associations. We then ask people to react to them and measure their response times. For example, we can present words or short phrases in colors and ask people to click on the matching color but ignore the word/phrase. The longer it takes to do this, the more the word/phrase captured their attention and thereby delayed them from clicking on the color. This delay is not long; it can be 1/100th of a second or even less. But it is measurable and it is meaningful. The advantage of this method over some others is that it is scalable. It can be done relatively quickly and employ large numbers of respondents so that important segments can be examined. Further, the associations can be assessed in terms of their relative strengths.

A Study of Loyalty

Implicit Strategies, in collaboration with Ipsos Reid, conducted a study for the Marketing Store designed to understand the unconscious associations underlying brand loyalty, which is also the topic we are co-presenting at the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association (MRIA) June 2014 conference.

We generated fifteen possible associations and tested them using the methodology I described above. Without going into the details, here is what we found:

People in general, associate loyalty with love, trust, reliability, and friends. Thus to be loyal is to love another and to be a friend one can count on. There is also a dark side to loyalty. Part of being loyal is a fear of change. We are sometimes loyal because the alternative is frightening. We fear the unknown; we fear risk.

We can generate a template for a loyalty message as well as a template for overcoming loyalty should we want to introduce something to supplant an "old reliable."

Pro loyalty: This product/brand is your friend and you can rely on it. You love it and it loves you. Why would you want to try anything else? What take a chance when what you have is so reliable, friendly and loving?

Overcoming loyalty: Anything good you know now was once and example of change. Naturally, you are hesitant, even fearful, but you have to overcome that if you are to move forward. Once you do so, you will come to love and trust your new, reliable, friend.

Men and Women are not the Same

Although there is general consistency across consumers, there are also gender differences in loyalty at the associative level. And these make sense. In fact, the results fit neatly into the paradigm innovated by the sociolinguist and best selling author Deborah Tannen. For women, loyalty is about trust, devotion, and commitment. Female loyalty is an interpersonal affair. For men, it is a matter of honor, a contractual commitment. Male loyalty is about doing the right thing. This means that marketing loyalty to men and women needs to be a bit different: for the former it should emphasize obligation, for the latter it should emphasize trust. Marketing designed to overcome loyalty so as to introduce something new or encourage a switch should address betraying a relationship for women and breaking an obligation for men. These are the things that need to be overcome if the goal of the marketing is to effect a change.


Loyalty need not be the mysterious entity it seems to have become. In addition to directly asking about what motivates and maintains loyalty, we can also look beneath the surface to how people conceptualize loyalty unconsciously. We can then leverage these insights to enhance (or weaken) loyalty in our consumers.

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