The conversation around brand loyalty has been on a steady decline since the advent of social media. Ever since "engagement" snuck into the picture, business publications have been talking big about how important it is to regularly interact with customers, touting the untold benefits of regular contact.

While there is a lot of value in relationship marketing, or marketing to current customers through content, customer success, and customer education, overall marketers may be missing the forest for the trees.

Brand loyalty is about shared values

So what is brand loyalty really about?

According to research conducted by the CEB, published in the Harvard Business Review, there are three common myths around customer loyalty that need to be addressed:


  1. Myth: Customers want to have relationships with brands.
    The truth: 77 percent don’t.
  2. Myth: An increase in interactions is always the answer.
    The truth: Your customers can suffer from information overload.
  3. Myth: Loyalty comes from regularly engaging with a brand.
    The truth: Brand loyalty starts with shared values.


All of these myths are important to know, but let's take a closer look at the last point. Having shared values, similar opinions or a common philosophy on a particular issue, was the only significant driver for brand relationships with the few consumers who wanted one. According to researchers Freeman, Spenner, and Bird:

"Of the consumers in our study who said they have a brand relationship, 64% cited shared values as the primary reason. That's far and away the largest driver. Meanwhile, only 13% cited frequent interactions with the brand as a reason for having a relationship.”


Having shared values, similar opinions or a common philosophy on a particular issue, was the only significant driver for brand relationships with the few consumers who wanted one.


The majority of your customers don't care about having a close relationship with your brand; those who do care more about the things you stand for vs. how often you engage with them. Why would more forced interactions matter to a customer who already appreciates your product and service?


The most beloved brands have developed their following through a strong stance on issues in their industry. For example:


  1. TOMS shoes champions their One for One movement, which gives a pair of shoes to a needy person in the world for each purchase.
  2. Zappos has built their core values around “WOWing” customers, placing service as their #1 priority.
  3. Timberland emphasizes their G.R.E.E.N Standard, which aims to place profitability and community service on the same team.


What your company stands for doesn't have to be lofty, but you have to plant your flag on an issue that matters.
 Communicating your brand's higher purpose outside of making money is the way to create a genuine connection with loyal customers. The research says it's the one consistent method of creating brand loyalty that truly sticks.


In addition to being known for a strong stance on issues that matter to them, many companies with strong brands have done something a bit out of the ordinary: they made an enemy.


Does your brand need an enemy?

The quest for brand loyalty may not be over once you’ve found a cause to rally for. You might need an enemy.

In Apple Inc.'s notorious 1984 advertisement, a clear picture was painted of how Apple saw Windows' users — they were un-hip, corporate drones that loved boring beige-shaded boxes and Excel spreadsheets.


Apple was the cool, savvy product for young people doing creative work. This rivalry played a huge role in Apple's subsequent branding strategy and future Mac vs. PC campaign.
 Given how fiercely loyal many Apple consumers are known to be, you may not be surprised to hear that the "Cult of Apple" isn't just a mocking turn of phrase. Neuroscience research found the same areas that light up in the brain when thinking about religion also light up for Apple fans when they're thinking about Apple products. This loyalty is spurred in large part by the division Apple creates between itself and competitors.

In Henri Tajfel's study "Social categorization and inter-group behavior," Tajfel and his team sought to understand what it takes to create division between random groups. His findings were fairly shocking.

Tajfel and his team discovered that when subjects who did not previously know each other were divided into groups, even by the most arbitrary of distinctions, they would actively discriminate against other groups and favor their own in-group when it came time to dole out real rewards.


The mere illusion of division, spurred on by meaningless choices (such as a coin toss) was enough to get people to favor their in-group over the other "outsiders."
 Tajfel's work on social identity shows us why groups seem to naturally form across all cultures and people of all types:

Social identity theory suggests that people identify with groups in such a way as to maximize positive distinctiveness. Groups offer both identity (they tell us who we are) and self-esteem (they make us feel good about ourselves).

You'll notice how this relates to being a company that stands for something; people like to support companies with strongly held beliefs because they enjoy being part of a movement and the feeling of belonging that comes with it. The thing is, group formation is done more quickly (and with stronger bonds) when the group has identified an enemy, as supported by the findings from Tajfel's social categorization study. This is why sports fans become so close-knit when their team is going up against a rival.

Can your business create the same effect? How can you go about making an enemy without hurting your reputation?


If you're worried about going toe-to-toe with a competitor like Apple and Microsoft, fear not — you don't have to make an enemy of a brand, but rather with an idea or a belief. Instead of rallying cries that criticize Company XYZ, you should clearly position your company against something that your ideal customers are likely to shun as well.


The Moz team take a stance against snake-oil salesmen in the SEO (search engine optimization) industry, denouncing their shady and often illegal use of "black hat" tactics that compromise sites, spam users, and give legitimate search engine marketers a bad name.


So how do you position yourself against an idea? Below are three tips to ensure that the enemy you choose won't backfire and hurt your reputation:


  1. Don’t dwell. Establish your stance, but don't be a broken record. Especially true if you're using content marketing to speak about your values. You don't want to constantly shine the spotlight on the things you oppose.
  2. Stick to problem/solution scenarios. This strategy works best with solving problems and selling solutions. For Moz, the divide created makes sense, but if you're selling pencils, trying to make an enemy out of pens will just look silly.
  3. Don’t let it get personal. It's okay to take subtle jabs at the business practices of your competitors, but personally calling out companies or individuals is generally a bad move that can blow up in your face.

It makes sense for nutritionists to raise their banners against greedy corporations who peddle overly-processed foods filled with empty calories, but it's silly for them to name-call and badger a competing nutritionist.


So, what idea or belief is your company's enemy?



Gregory Ciotti

About the author: Gregory Ciotti is on the marketing team at Help Scout.