The concept of building brand loyalty used to be relatively straightforward. Effective marketing and delivery of a positive customer experience would create a positive association for a brand. The lifetime value of that relationship could then be hugely profitable, with consumers unlikely to switch.

However, we now live in a world of choice and information overload. An increasingly digital landscape, dominated by tech giants who hold many of the cards. In this new world, run by algorithms and AI, traditional long-held attachments are being unwound. As we culturally shift in shopping habits, people are more likely to remember what they bought from Instagram or Amazon but not the actual name of the brand. Does this mean brand loyalty is dead or at the very least waning?

Brand communication – from top-down to influencer-led

In the old world, brand marketers would use above-the-line platforms to create a strong identity and desire for a product. The brand direction was determined in a very top-down fashion, often based on the instinct of the CMO. A ‘needs’ state was identified and answered and an advertising campaign was launched highlighting the brand’s unique qualities.

In today’s world, we have shifted to digital and younger generations will see campaigns on Tik Tok and Instagram where the product is being advocated by a brand ambassador or a paid-for ad placed on social. In this new era, the control of the brand’s identity has been repackaged, personalized, and filtered through the lens of influencers. Having never heard of the brand, the influencer’s recommendation can be enough to create a consumer of a brand.

In fact, large segments of audiences will have never even seen an advert on TV or in a newspaper because they don’t touch a newspaper or they don’t switch on a TV. Or the brand has not included it as part of its media planning. According to recent research by Nielson, only 10% of Gen Z rank watching TV as their most popular entertainment activity. In fact, across the 18-34 bracket, live TV viewership dropped by 23% year on year.

The changing nature of brand loyalty

So, this digitally dominant world has created an entirely different mindset when it comes to brand loyalty. For socially digital natives, brand loyalty is about what it offers to them in value. A brand like Paul Smith will have a huge amount of brand equity among Gen X or baby boomers for its quality, tailoring, or painstakingly built partnerships and marketing campaigns. However, this will mean nothing for younger generations living in the moment and wanting to know what a brand can deliver here and now.

For younger consumers, if it is a relevant brand, it will be popular for them. If it’s not, they are just not interested. Quality has given way to relevance or price consciousness. Indeed there has been a huge rise in interest among younger audiences in mobile phone brands that offer a lot of the same features as iPhones but for a fraction of the price, like Xiaomi built with an Android skin. The tease here is the freedom an Android device offers a user who doesn’t want to be part of or associated with ‘that crowd’.

For digital natives, there is a checklist of what is really important for them when they spend their money. In recent research, price promotion was rated as crucial for this audience, but ethics are also vital. How long is a product going to last and what are they going to use it for? Does it meet my needs and values?

The life cycle of brands

In this new age, the life cycle of brands is also shorter, almost sonic. Brands can spring up quickly to consciousness but equally, their success can be shorter-lived. This has been evidenced by the spate of high-street retail brands that have disappeared.

Glossier is a D2C brand that sprung up in relatively short order. They have quickly scaled up the ladder of investment based on perceived digital growth that would continue endlessly. The direct-to-consumer beauty brand has raised an astonishing $80 million in Series E funding and reversed the traditional model.

They have latterly embraced physical retail with a pop-up store in Covent Garden, London,  and the swift ascent to being a much-loved brand is highlighted by the queues of people outside. However, they recently had to lay off staff as the growth they have experienced has not been maintained. Could the bubble burst as quickly as it was created?

How do brands build loyalty today?

It is certainly difficult for brands to build loyalty in the modern world because they are having to think about a very different culturally younger generation and manage a more traditionally minded older audience.

To square up this circle, value and values are two unifying themes that can be focused on, although realized in different ways. As consumers, we are all more interested in the purpose of brands and this is a clear differentiator. Brands today, particularly consumer goods products, have to think not only about how they make a product but also how they produce it. According to a study by Cone/Porter Novelli, 77% of consumers say they have stronger emotional bonds to purpose-driven companies.

Also, what added value are brands able to offer beyond the immediate product or service? How are they innovating to remain relevant? An excellent example of this is the Google Pixel 6 device, which enables users to remove photobombers and unwanted objects so that they “disappear like magic” using a “magic eraser”. Also, Portraits on Pixel represent the nuances of different skin tones for all people beautifully and authentically, to take true, accurate portraits. It’s innovations like these that create an immediate way for brands to build loyalty in the modern era.

Canny partnerships unite different audiences

Additionally, partnerships can be a great way of uniting seemingly disparate groups around common themes. CK1 Palace was a great example of this. A new collaboration between Calvin Klein and Palace Skateboards was launched with a tongue-in-cheek film celebrating cities that came to define these two labels. For streetwear brand Palace, it was London and its lively skate scene, with grainy film textures creating some retro cool. 

Also included are high-contrast, black-and-white style studio shots, synonymous with Calvin Klein. The combination of nostalgia and modern relevance was a canny move that other brands would do well to replicate. Calvin Klein has opened new stores and you will see members of Gen Z proudly walking around Carnaby Street in London with a Calvin Klein shopping bag. This shows an effective strategy by a heritage brand to remain relevant and build loyalty with different audiences.

Towards a new approach

Creating brand loyalty today is far more difficult in a digital, social media-dominated world of increasing fickleness. Heritage brands are in trouble with a younger generation who has no interest in timeless qualities built up over many years. But brands can succeed if they adopt a new playbook. This needs to focus on the values and value of their product and on leveraging partnerships to remain relevant.

According to author Maurice Franks, “Loyalty cannot be blueprinted. It cannot be produced on an assembly line. In fact, it cannot be manufactured at all, for its origin is the human heart.”

Cover image source: Keagan Henman