Forbes – Brand Loyalty in an Age of Uncertainty

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August 16, 2021

WRITTEN BY: Phil Davis for Forbes

When it comes to branding, no asset is more valuable than customer loyalty. It generates higher margins, repeat business, profitable referrals and great reviews. But what is at the heart of brand loyalty? What drives customers to return to your company again and again?

Most business owners purport to know (at least, on some level) what attracts customers to their businesses. It’s typically some combination of top-notch staff, quality products and excellent service — the idea being, the more positive proclamations the better. But trust doesn’t come from sweeping claims; it comes from focused commitment. When it comes to brand loyalty, keeping one central promise 100% of the time beats keeping several promises some of the time.

The question, then, is what is that central promise? What is the core commitment that your customer expects from you in each and every interaction?

Consider major league sports. Most franchise owners pledge their undying commitment to their fans. Yet, over the years, team after team has changed cities, venues, names, mascots, logos, colors and even their marquee players. The Atlanta Braves were once the Boston Red Stockings. Today’s Tennessee Titans were the Houston Oilers. The team owner wants fans to be loyal, but loyal to what? If not the city, place, name, mascot or players, then what is the rallying point for their allegiance? The same question applies to businesses. What do you supply to your customers that would make them loyal to you?

The very nature of loyalty is that it is earned over time. Make a promise and then keep it. Coke failed the test when it promised to be “the real thing,” and that “Coke is it,” and then flinched by introducing New Coke. In search of short-term financial gain, some companies erode their long-term credibility — their true brand equity.

Think of companies and brands that have earned your trust. Chances are they delivered on some expectation, be it price, quality, innovation, speed, performance, convenience, integrity, etc.

I believe Craftsman tools earned its solid brand reputation by replacing any tool purchased from the company, no questions asked. Customer loyalty was more valuable than the occasional cost of replacing a 20-year-old socket set. FedEx made its mark by declaring it was the shipping company of choice when “it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” These are sometimes referred to as “stand and deliver” lines. What can your company definitively state and commit to, without ever backing down?

To better understand your core promise, ask yourself some theoretical questions, some mental thought experiments, that put your true commitments to the test. We all want to do right by our customers, but when push comes to shove, something will always lead and something will follow. Knowing the hill you are willing to die on will generate confidence from both customers and staff alike.

Here’s one example: Imagine a scenario where you have an important customer deadline that you could only meet if you ship an “okay” but not stellar product. Would you ship the acceptable product on time to meet the deadline or miss the deadline in order to ship the best quality product when it is available? Tough question, right? But it drives to the core of whether your real priority is service or quality. Making that decision will disappoint some clients either way, but you will gain a reputation.

By applying your decision consistently, you will either start to be known for meeting deadlines or you will be known for unyielding quality. And you will garner the trust of clients looking for either expectation.

This isn’t a right or wrong scenario; it’s a matter of owning what you stand for and making it known. It’s the very substance of building a brand reputation. The worst choice is not making a choice at all. Not standing for something means you don’t stand for anything.

A few years back, I was waiting for a departing flight on a certain unnamed airline. The arriving plane was both dirty and late. A choice had to be made: Clean the plane properly or fly “dirty” and get back on schedule. Without a clear commitment, a prioritization, the staff did what most employees would do… they attempted both. They half cleaned the plane and took off a little late. The result was an unsatisfactory flying experience and a missed connection in the next city. It would have been better to fly clean in a late plane or to fly dirty in an on-time plane.

Either set of actions would have resulted in a specific reputation — one of cleanliness or one of timeliness. Each would then attract a loyal audience looking for that attribute. But by waffling and trying to juggle both objectives, this airline achieved neither and, ironically, lost on both measures. In order to create a clear, well-articulated brand, one that’s worthy of customer loyalty, something must lead and something must follow. It’s not an oppositional choice, it’s a sequential one.

It’s human nature to align ourselves with something aspirational — a goal, a shared vision, a higher standard. If companies want customers to align with them, to be loyal to them, then companies must first align with something higher than themselves. After all, your customer is trying to obtain something through you, not from you. So, what is it that you want to be known for? What singular attribute best defines you? Safety? Innovation? Knowledge? Care? Prestige?

It’s not just a matter of selling a product or service, it’s how you provide that product or service. By identifying your foremost priority, and aligning with it, you can clearly communicate that message both internally and externally. You’ll easily make short-term sacrifices in order to earn that long-term trust and build a lasting reputation. Branding your business on enduring qualities will not only help you pass through uncertain times, but it will also help your company stand the very test of time.

About Phil Davis

Brand Naming Expert

With over twenty-five years of company naming and branding expertise, Tungsten founder Phil Davis is a marketing and advertising veteran, having personally named over 250 companies, products and services worldwide. As a sought-after naming expert, Phil has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal,, Businessweek, Entrepreneur, and Newsday.

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