#RIC19: Why Brands Should Strive For ‘Irrational Loyalty’ From Shoppers

Retailers seeking to build customer loyalty must appeal as much to shoppers’ emotions as to their rational brains — perhaps even more so. Deb Gabor, CEO and Founder of Sol Marketing, explained that people who have experienced damage to their brain’s limbic system, which handles emotions, lose not only the ability to feel but also the ability to make even basic decisions: “People have to feel something to do something,” she said.

When brands can appeal to shoppers’ emotions, they are able to create “irrational loyalty,” said Gabor, meaning “they would feel like they were cheating on the brand if they went to a competitor.”

Achieving this level of connection with customers is becoming a necessity in today’s highly competitive world, Gabor noted in her presentation at the 2019 Retail Innovation Conference, titled: Brave New World: Attracting Legions of Irrationally Loyal Fans To Your Retail Brand. “In 2018, offering Bluetooth in a new car is standard equipment, but it was an only an option in 2014,” she noted. “Today’s options packages are tomorrow’s standard equipment.”


Gabor’s strongest example of irrational loyalty is the case of Blue Bell Ice Cream, which experienced a listeria outbreak at a processing plant in 2010 that killed three people. The company “used the crisis as an opportunity to show regard for people’s humanity in an active way,” said Gabor. “They took full responsibility, said ‘We are sorry for what we did,’ and during their shutdown they continued to pay some employees.

“The brand was off the market for approximately five years as they dealt with cleaning up the plant, but when it came back there were people lined up to buy a half-gallon of vanilla ice cream,” she added. “There’s nothing more ‘irrational’ than the way consumers behaved during that crisis.”

Creating irrational loyalty has to extend throughout the enterprise and into every customer interaction. “It’s not enough to be different; you have to build a brand that people want to use, not just that they want to buy,” Gabor said. She compared how department stores traditionally sold cosmetics, with white-suited salespeople behind a forbidding counter, versus the way retailers such as Sephora and Glossier interact with customers: “Their people are wearing holsters and brushes, and the message is ‘Let’s play and experience the brand.’”

Brands need to offer not just functional benefits, but emotional benefits that fulfill people’s affiliation and esteem needs, said Gabor. To move in this direction, “identify who your ideal customer archetype is — that is, the customer that is worth it over the long haul, who is the most profitable and a delight to serve,” she said. “If you have a picture of this ultimate customer, power your brand to be laser-focused on this person.”

Once this customer archetype is identified, retailers need to find the answers to what Gabor calls the “Brand Swagger” questions:

• What does it say about a customer that they use your brand?

• What is the singular benefit customers get from you that they can’t get from anyone else?

• How do you make your customer the hero in his or her own story?

“A brand is the collective emotional response to your product, and it represents a relationship,” said Gabor. “Branding is differentiation that’s meaningful.”

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