Brand Loyalty is "the tendency of consumers to continue buying a specific brand's product or service, despite the competition," according to Webster's Online Dictionary. I'm not happy with that. How about, "Brand Loyalty is the consumer's conscious or unconscious decision, expressed through intention or behavior, to repurchase a brand continually." That's PageWise's answer. I think that's closer, but still not quite there.
One more try...
Loyalty is a Willingness to Tolerate Pain and Risk
"Loyalty can be expressed as the amount of pain an individual is willing to endure to be identified with something when they know less pain would be involved if they were identified with something else."
That one I like, and probably because I originated it in a presentation I give on what we’re learning about visitors from websites. It applies to brand loyalty, and the definition makes a point: Loyalty isn't a measure of pleasure; it's a measure of pain and risk. Pain and risk ordinarily concern social acceptance, hence our sense of identity, who we think we are and how we think we fit in. This is obvious when we think of loyalty to people or organizations, but how does it apply to usability and branding?
Recently, a Fortune 500 company engaged South Carolina-based MarketSearch Corporation to conduct a usability analysis of its website and compare it to two other corporate sites. Charles Wentworth, who directed the study for MarketSearch, was well aware that standard marketing research methodologies are loaded with biases and errors related to the sampling frame, the survey instruments, the interviewers and the fact that the respondents know they are being evaluated. Wentworth wanted a tool that would allow him to perform a separate analysis of the study participants, one that would focus a separate, non-intrusive lens on the participants while they were engaged in the study. The goal was to determine if knowledge of their participation was affecting the results.
And this is where usability meets branding.
The interface is the brand
Web shoppers are no different than brick-and-mortar shoppers: they like what is familiar, and they resist change. People as a rule resist change -- some to a higher degree than others -- because change tends to mean upheaval, turmoil and unrest. Even if people are aware of the rewards resulting from change, they're usually not happy going through the change, although they may enjoy the results.
Familiarity represents comfort, ease, rest, and -- most importantly -- understanding and being understood. Being understood and understanding is why people in bad relationships often remain in them: the dynamics of the relationship are predictable. In other words, people are loyal to that which is familiar, even when it's painful.
This same dynamic of familiarity translates to people's use of websites and what happens when a company changes its web presentation. Repeat visitors who thought a given website was exceedingly poor will prefer the old, poor design to a newer, better design because the old design was familiar and understood. They were willing to have some pain because the pain was familiar and understood.
This translates to people identifying with a site's interface more than they identify with a product's brand. Two metrics gathered during the Wentworth study were (1) whether visitors would return to a website and (2) whether or not visitors were loyal to a website. Note that we weren't interested in whether or not visitors were loyal to a brand: We were interested in whether or not visitors were loyal to a website, which means they'll tolerate a certain amount of pain just to interact with that website.
We discovered that visitors will return to websites to which they have no loyalty simply because they're familiar with the interface. As soon as someone directs the individual to a competitor's website and the individual determines the competitor's website is less painful to navigate, they're gone. Knowing visitor loyalty -- and knowing how far that loyalty can be pushed before disloyalty sets in -- tells you how much and how well visitors think of your brand. Disloyalty is abandonment of a site; forget what you've heard about shopping carts.
Loyalty's two parts
Loyalty can be broken down into two parts: immediate loyalty (what some call "stickiness" and in psychodynamics is called "persistence") and in long-term loyalty. Long-term loyalty takes time to develop, involves trust, and is where Brand Loyalty -- and what I'll call Interface Loyalty -- lives.
Contrary to popular wisdom, you don't want a site to be sticky; you want visitors to be persistent. Persistence means visitors will stay on a site until they've achieved some goal of their own. You don't want visitors to be loyal to your brand; you want them to trust that the brand isn't going to be painful to them.
Redefining the problem makes the solution obvious
Redefining loyalty along these lines, usability becomes the art of making visitors persistent, not making a site sticky. Likewise, Brand becomes the art of making the customer trust you and want to know you. Brand loyalty becomes interface loyalty when you give visitors a reason to be persistent, and that reason is the visitor's desire to trust and want to know you. You've overcome one hurdle if a visitor comes to your interface knowing your brand, but then that loyalty needs to be translated from your logo to your site as a whole.
Brand loyalty and interface loyalty
The Wentworth study used these concepts to increase usability, hence persistence, hence branding, among visitors 35 percent. Any experience that increases both pleasure (the visitor got to know you because they wanted to) and has a favorable outcome (the visitor's goal was achieved) will be repeated. These two items were echoed in the study findings as visitor loyalty -- hence interface loyalty -- resulted in brand loyalty increasing at a similar rate.
Interface loyalty has a demonstrable effect on transactions, as stated by Reichheld's Loyalty Effect -- which demonstrates that companies turn over their client base every five years, and the way to combat this is through loyalty management -- a 5 percent increase in retention rate leads to 75 percent increase in customer profitability rate. Visitors who have a pleasurable experience and a favorable outcome will repeat that experience.
Invite visitors to be loyal to your interface and they'll be loyal to your brand because the only place to get that experience is on your site, which, by the way, is where your brand lives.
Joseph Carrabis has been everything from butcher to truck driver to Senior Knowledge Architect to Chief Research Scientist. His 22 books and 225 articles have ranged among cultural anthropology, mathematics, information mechanics, language acquisition, neurolinguistics, psychodynamics and psychosocial modeling -- and other eclectic topics. His knowledge and data designs have been used by Caltech, Citibank, DOD, IBM, NASA, Owens-Corning and Smith-Barney among others. Currently Carrabis is CRO of NextStage Evolution and NextStage Analytics, and founder of KnowledgeNH and NH Business Development Network. He's inventor and developer of Evolution Technology.