Customer loyalty is key to the success of a brand or product, generating repeat sales while indicating that the consumer holds the brand in high regard. Further, if a consumer is loyal to a brand, she will recommend it, which serves to increase the customer base. So it is crucial that brand marketers understand the foundation of brand loyalty – what it means to consumers and how to 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.

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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 that people had to Classic Coke and the emotional attachment people had to those associations. As a result, a major mistake was made.

Measuring the Unconscious

So how do we assess unconscious associations? One way is by measuring reaction time, We present associations that we think ought to be triggered by the concept we are trying to understand associatively. These 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 phrases in various colors and ask people to click on the matching color, but to ignore the word/phrase. The longer it takes the respondent to identify the correct color, the more the word/phrase captured their attention and delayed them from clicking on the color. This delay is not long; it can be just 1/100th of a second, or even less. But it is measurable and it is meaningful. The advantage of this method over others is that the results are scalable and the testing can be done relatively quickly and employ large numbers of respondents. Further, the associations can be assessed in terms of their relative strengths.

A Study of Loyalty

Implicit Strategies, in collaboration with IPSOS Canada, recently conducted a study for the Marketing Store to understand the unconscious associations underlying brand loyalty.

We generated fifteen (15) possible associations and tested them using the methodology described above. Without going into details, here is what we found:

People in general, associate loyalty with love, trust, reliability and friendship. 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 fear of change. We are sometimes loyal because the alternative, the unknown, is frightening.


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

Overcoming Loyalty

Anything good you now know was once an example of change. Naturally, you are hesitant but you have to overcome your fears to move forward. Once you do, you will come to love and trust your new, reliable, friend (brand).

Men and Women Do Not Respond in the Same Way

Although there is general consistency across consumers, there are also gender differences in loyalty at the associative level. In fact, the results fit neatly into the paradigm innovated by the sociolinguist and author Deborah Tannen. For women, loyalty is about trust, devotion and commitment. Female loyalty is an interpersonal affair.

For men loyalty is a matter of honor, a contractual commitment. Male loyalty is about doing the right thing. This means that marketing to men and women needs to take different approaches. Marketing designed to enhance loyalty targeted at women should emphasize trust. Marketing designed to enhance loyalty targeted at men should emphasize obligation.

Marketing designed to overcome loyalty and to introduce something new or to encourage a switch should address betraying a relationship for women and breaking an obligation for men. These are the issues that need to be overcome if the goal of the marketing effort 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 discover how people conceptualize loyalty unconsciously. We can then leverage these insights to enhance (or weaken) loyalty among our consumers.

Photo: Shawn Veader / Flickr