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What consumers wish brand managers knew.

One of the main issues debated among marketers in the '90s is whether or not brand loyalty would be a victim of the recession, killed by consumers' avid price shopping. Some marketers have wondered, do consumers care about brands? Are they loyal to any? And, a related issue, does a positive brand image or brand equity result in consumers being more likely to buy and/or to pay a higher price?

To probe what brands mean to consumers and to gain a better understanding of why good feelings toward a brand don't necessarily translate into buying, my firm conducted a special in-depth study. The study gave consumers an opportunity to explain their feelings and behavior toward brands, to explain the discrepancies, and to send a message to the people who manage brands.

The first step was a three-hour focus group I conducted in the beginning of 1997 with men and women 35- to 65-years-old in New York. For more geographic dispersion, my associate Naomi Brody and I followed up with 20 telephone depth interviews 30 to 40 minutes long with men and women between 25- and 60-years-old around the country.

Prior to the focus group and the depth interviews, we asked respondents to do a "homework" assignment. They were given a questionnaire with 29 product, service, and media categories and asked which brands "best represent you now" and which ones they "aspire to in the future." During the interviews we asked them what each grouping had in common and what these brands reveal about them. Their self-perceptions of being a loyal customer, reasons for loyalty or the lack of it, why they don't necessarily buy their favorite brands, nostalgia toward brands and, lastly, what they would say to the people who manage brands, were also probed.


Perhaps the most striking point which emerged from this research is that a number of consumers like, even love, brands. Consumers are not as cynical as they are often portrayed. They respect the brands that have lasted, the ones that have "instant name recognition." They rely on brands that are old favorites. Their antennae are out for brands that are "hot" rising stars. Some enjoy being part of brand "clubs." In today's uncertain world, brands may even provide an element of continuity in their lives.

Brand Roles

Having a regular relationship with a brand - whether or not it is total loyalty-serves several important purposes for consumers:

Practical role

Returning to the same brand can be a matter of habit and convenience. It is reassuring to buy consistent, known quality - it saves the customer time, money, disappointment, and even self-blame. Two women explained:

Everything changes so much, so if you open a can of soda, you want it to taste like the way you know. That's why I stick to the brands I like. Maybe it's a security thing. You know if you open a Coke it tastes good, tastes the way it's supposed to taste. Instead of ordering something unknown and thinking, "Why did I order this?"

I'm really loyal to stores. As I've gotten older, I feel I know what I want. It makes it easier to know what to expect . . . I know it has my size. . . .

Emotional role

Consumers identify with brands and use them for self-expression and as links to their past. They have genuine affection for some brands. Also talking about Coca-Cola, one man said, "We've grown up with it. Coke has always been the family friend."

Social role

Brands, of course, also make statements to other people - they are a short-hand communication of who you are. They can win acceptance, approval, or at the very least, in some cases avoid disapproval.

Loyalty segments

While consumers make decisions on individual brands, they also develop overall patterns in their relationships with brands. Interestingly, in the '90s, some are proud to be loyal, while others are proud that they are not totally loyal to brands. Segments observed in the research are:

The Steadfasts

These people declare their loyalty as a sign of strength of character. Their rationale for remaining true to a brand is, why change if there's no reason to? While, not surprisingly, some were middle-aged and said they have settled down with brands, others were younger, continuing relationships with brands from childhood or ones they have established on their own.

These comments are typical of this segment:

When I find a brand that has value, I stick to it. I know what I like, I buy what I like. I'm comfortable financially where I can buy what I want, where I don't worry about prices where I did earlier in my career. It's where I want to be.

I'm fairly brand loyal. I don't like change. Once I've found something I like, I stick with it if it's been good to me.

Some might argue that change is good. I don't usually listen.

I consider myself a thoroughly dependable person; that's why I like a dependable product. This indicates that being steadfast in buying fits into these consumers' personalities.

Loyalty Minimizers

These consumers pronounce themselves free agents who are smart price shoppers and open to change. It just happens that in a number of categories they repeatedly buy their old favorites "nine times out of ten."

One pattern for Minimizers is home-base loyalty: they periodically try something new or buy a different brand on sale, but they then return to the brand they have bought for years, often one they grew up with. Another pattern of dual loyalty is where consumers shuttle back and forth between two main brands, depending on the price or their needs at the moment. One man, for instance, talked about "being loyal to more than one brand at a time. It can be either Kodak or Fuji."

Category Contingents

These people are semiloyal - sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't, depending on the category. If a product is important to them and they see a difference among brands, they will buy one brand consistently, while in other areas they could care less. (Most consumers vary by category to some extent, of course, but this segment seems to be more erratic than usual.)

Image Rejectors

These no-nonsense consumers insist they don't care about anything but the product characteristics and, of course, price. They refuse, they say, to pay more for a fancy brand name. Store brands are fine in many categories, they insist.


In this era when brand loyalty cannot be taken for granted, it is vital for marketers to understand what helps a brand make a connection with consumers and, on the other side, what causes consumers to disconnect - what builds or breaks the brand bond.

Nostalgia is a major connect for consumers-across age groups. The brands they grew up with, have affection for, and respect from their youth play an important role in their lives. The brands their parents used made an indelible impression. This seems to be especially true for foods, drinks, and cleaning products - the tastes and smells of childhood.

"I'm very brand loyal," one woman declared. "I've used Tide forever - my mother used Tide and when I got married, it didn't occur to me to use anything but Tide."

With the aging of the population, especially the baby-boomer generation, this connection with childhood will continue to be an important factor. Here are some interesting comments about food brands. A woman who keeps coming back to Carolina Rice said,

It's something about the texture, the memories of family meals, cooking rice that way. Hellman's mayonnaise - mother thought it was the brand for us. I have deviated and gotten other brands, but it doesn't taste like Mom's cooking.

"Campbell's tomato soup is the only one that will do," another woman explained. "It's like a cozy, comforting thing. It tastes good mainly because you associate it with what it did for you when you were a kid. Maybe it doesn't even taste that good, but somehow it works on a level beyond just your taste buds."

A vivid memory for a man in his early 30s was eating his Captain Crunch cereal (which he still buys) while watching Captain Kangaroo on television in the mornings. He said, "It was sort of funny - watch the Captain and eat the Captain."

Nostalgia, however, is not sufficient to keep a brand alive. Consumers respect, "old, established" brands, but they want them to be part of today. Some old brands have disappeared from consciousness, some have become out of touch. Successful older brands may play on feelings for the past but they also stay current - by introducing new products, innovating, updating products, having ads that are relevant, sometimes attaching themselves to celebrities, talking to today's sensibilities - a combination of sentiment and sensibility.

Brands like Jell-O, Good Humor, and Hershey's have "managed to keep up with the times yet maintain some of the traditions," one woman said.

Brands as "clubs" can be another consumer connection. Certain brands create a link with other users: owners talk to one another, compliment one another on their good taste, feel validated in their choices. Some brands have official clubs, such as Swatch, which encourage collecting, and Saturn with its family-style meetings. A Ford van owner who "used to go to van meets all the time," described them as "a big campout, a big party. You meet people from all over the place. It's nice meeting new people who are customizing vans, using them for recreation vehicles. . . . It feels excellent, a good feeling to know there's a reason why I purchased this, and I'm sure all these other people can't be wrong either."

Club membership is usually more informal. A woman who sees her car, the Chrysler Town and Country, "all over the place," said this makes her feel, "Oh good, I guess I got a popular car, the mom-and-kids car. [Other owners] toot. At first, I didn't know if I knew them. Then I realized it was the same car, the same color. It's like going into a dinner party with the same dress." A Toyota owner said that when she meets other owners at the dealership, "we go on and on about how we love our car. We're people who know how to do research, do our homework."

Sometimes owners find themselves instant, though inadvertent (they say), club members. A man who wore his New Balance shoes to work for the first time had five people in the office pat him on the back:

I bought them because they were comfortable (I have wide feet), but a lot of this is status. . . . It was a connection between people.

A woman who purchased a Gateway computer said,

The minute these cartons hit the lobby of my [apartment] building, suddenly I had everyone in my building who had [one] telling me what to do. . . . It became a definite community, elitist, a subgroup of people. They now look at me like I'm one of them. It's mutual recognition.

"I was at a Super Bowl party and I picked up an obscure drink," another woman recalled. "Somebody else across the room went, 'Yo!' because he had the the same thing. People feel a connection when you're drinking the same thing."

Hometown brands, like Anheuser Busch in St. Louis, were also mentioned as the ones to use for social acceptance.

Just as consumers make connections with brands, they also disconnect. In fact, it is because brands are important to consumers that they sometimes quit their relationship with a brand. Leaving is not necessarily a sign of indifference. Consumers get mad and sad when it's bad. And, when they quit a brand it can be very hard to win them back. For instance, several respondents mentioned brands that had cut their quality or, in the case of food, their package size. They feel especially let down when the brands of childhood disappoint, when, for instance, a food doesn't match the taste in their mind.

Speaking of a former favorite brand, one man stated that the company had

cheapened the product. I could probably tell you the month and year they did it. I was a loyal peanut butter eater from teenaged years until about the time I was 30. Then they came out with a "new creamier flavor" and I know how. They put more oil and less peanuts and it tasted terrible. So I switched brands. And I don't know how they ever would get me back.

Customer service can also be a brand connect or disconnect. There were several stories about companies that endeared themselves through their post-purchase service, such as a car manufacturer checking to see if the customer was happy. Praising Sony's support for "a person who's all thumbs like me," one woman said, "if you need help, they have customer relations lines and they'll take your complaints and help you."

Brands can win back disgruntled consumers, turning complaints around by expressing regret, giving extra coupons, and so on. A woman who sent back a Snapple bottle received a coupon for two free bottles, a dollar off four bottles, "and a real personal letter typed to me, signed by a human being that they were sorry." She returned to the brand.

Unconcerned and unresponsive customer service, however, can lose customers forever, as well as create highly negative word-of-mouth. Keeping callers on hold, not helping them out with their problems, can frustrate or infuriate them.


This in-depth study suggests that a hierarchy of brands exists in consumers' minds. Looking at their homework on brands, respondents saw some clear patterns; they felt the brands they wrote down did, indeed, reveal something important about their personalities. Brands cluster in terms of class, price, quality, and psychographics. Consumers gravitate toward the level with which they feel comfortable.

Respondents' aspirational brands were typically higher priced than the brands which currently represent them, as would be expected. (Some respondents, though, especially the Steadfasts, listed the same brands in both columns.) It is a mistake to assume, however, that consumers necessarily want to move up to the highest-priced brands.

They may respect that top level, yet for reasons of value and self-image, they may not choose it. Some feel good about selecting moderately priced brands, even when they can afford higher priced ones. And, even if they won the lottery, some thought they would still feel uncomfortable spending money on the more expensive brands. There has to be a brand fit with the consumer: the brand has to feel right in personality and lifestyle.

Each of the brand levels can be a connect or disconnect for consumers.

Pinnacle brands

These are icons, the "ultimate," the standards of excellence in their field, symbols of success associated with the wealthy. Rolex, BMW, MercedesBenz, and Giorgio Armani were named repeatedly at this top level. The longing to buy these top brands can start in childhood or teenage years. Buying them becomes the fulfillment of a fantasy. Some consumers fully expect to make these purchases when they have the income and when their lifestage is right (they have a certain level of job, the kids are through with college, and so on). Speaking of brands like BMW, one man said, "I would consider myself more successful being able to afford those." Another man has his heart set on a different car:

I think I'd buy the Jaguar and would probably even hate it after a few years because it won't be as good, but this is one time that logic doesn't go into the purchase. It was a childhood dream, probably [started] around seven or eight [years old]. They were different and elusive, not a lot of people had them. There are a fair amount of Mercedes around town, but not as many Jaguars. They're kind of a neat car.

There are some lower ticket pinnacle brands as well. Godiva chocolates and Vogue magazine are two examples mentioned. Some brands have products in their line which are affordable to the middle class. Chanel cosmetics, for instance, can provide the pleasure of feeling rich, while a Chanel suit is out of reach. The "make-up lets you feel like, 'Oh well, I'm somebody who wears Chanel and therefore I've made it.'"

Some consumers, however, do not personally connect with the pinnacle brands, although they agree the brands are high quality. These people say they would not buy the top brands even if they could; some have the money now and haven't bought them. Why? We don't think this is sour grapes (maybe a little). Instead, it is a problem of brand fit. These top brands are viewed as "extravagant," "indulgent," "pretentious," "frivolous," "show-off," "status symbols." That is, they have an image of being bought just for image.

Fear of flashiness, not just price, keeps these consumers away - they don't want to look as if they bought a particular car, watch, or designer clothing for the express purpose of impressing others. This would only make them embarrassed - rather than enhancing their image, the status brands could backfire and make them look foolish. In some cases, showing off is inappropriate to their job, lifestyle, or stage of life. Because of its "image of excess," one man said, "I'd be a little self-conscious wearing" a Rolex; "you don't want to look like you're too much into status," another man said of the brand.

Importantly, too, the purchase would, they believe, make them feel foolish to have paid a price out of proportion for the product. They don't want to think they bought the brand for its prestige.

Observing the differences in how the same brand is viewed, one man made this observation:

There are two categories of people. Some want a Rolex because of its status and others say, "This is a fine piece of jewelry and I like things that are really well-crafted." I could be in the second if I had the money . . . . I'd buy it for the craftsmanship and there's an excellent history of the company standing behind the product, knowing . . . it would be the last watch I'd ever buy.

In short, brands like Rolex, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Armani remain popular because they are recognized success symbols with social value and because they are bought (or rationalized) for reasons of intrinsic merit - top-notch quality, safety, reliability, craftsmanship, etc. On the other side, they have become associated with '80s blatant status, too glitzy for some consumers' self-image.

Premium brands

Examples mentioned by respondents included Nike, Donna Karan, Microsoft, Chivas Regal, and Lexus. These are respected, somewhat elite, high priced for their category but not considered "ridiculously" overpriced. A more balanced mix of high and lower ticket items, the premium level is an affordable, reachable luxury for many. Consumers recognize they are paying more but feel this is justified by quality and the brand image - what that image does for their self-esteem and for social acceptance. Heineken beer is one of "the nicer things," one man said. "I feel more important when I drink it."

Such premium brands often have an image of understated rather than flamboyant sophistication. Donna Karan clothing, for instance, was described by one woman as "more sophisticated, a nice look but not flashy, not Ivana Trump; it's more subdued."

Parents who themselves are Image Rejectors will sometimes buy premium brands for their children. Speaking of his nine-year-old son, a man explained why he had just bought the boy an Easton sports bag, spending "extra money" although "any old one will do for me":

I feel better giving it to him because I feel he won't feel inferior to the team . . . . I'm secure in who I am, I know my place and have my status set up. He hasn't made those relationships yet and is more vulnerable to not having good self-esteem. My self-esteem doesn't rely on brands, but he hasn't developed self-esteem. I know he'll want the name because kids are more status-conscious. I didn't mind spending the money - when he carries that bag, he's going to feel like a ballplayer.

Describing the peer pressure on children, one woman said, "In my neighborhood, if you don't have a brand-name bicycle, the kids rib you. We had to go out and buy [my son] a $300 bike so the kids would leave him alone. He was getting harassed because he had a cheaper bike. And when I take him out for sneakers, it has to have a brand on it, even though the "bobo" [no name] brands are just as good. But if it doesn't say Nike Air, he becomes hassled . . . . It's peer pressure, and for an 11-year-old child, it's devastating."

While premium brands are not considered as outrageously overpriced as the pinnacle category, there are consumers who steer clear of this level. They resent "paying for the name" rather than "paying for the product." Interestingly, too, some don't want the pressure of having to live up to this level. A woman who would like a Canon camera but has not bought one yet said the reason is "price, but also the feeling of obligation it would bring. If you have a little camera, all you have to do is take a little snapshot, but if you get one that's more sophisticated, you kind of feel that you have to rise to the occasion to do it justice."

Of course, these days consumers don't always pay the "suggested retail price." Getting a premium brand at a reduced price is considered a coup.

Middle class brands

These are well-known, established brands. They are solid, offer good quality, and "do the job." Many are American brands and companies, associated with the mainstream and standing for American culture, such as Sears, Gillette, Ford, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Procter & Gamble. Foreign brands like Toyota also came up. These brands "represent a good return for the money you're spending," a respondent said.

It was fascinating that several respondents spoke with pride about their liking of such middle-of-the-road brands. These brands, they said, are not necessarily the very best quality, but they offer appropriate quality at the right price. These are not show-off brands. Importantly, this level is not only one that some consumers feel comfortable with; it is good for their self-image - they are sensible, practical people; they are thrifty family shoppers, suburban parents, and so on.

Such brands, one man observed, indicate that "I'm relatively frugal, careful about how I spend my money, not ostentatious, practical. I tend to spend money on my kids first rather than on myself. I'm a nice guy, a family man who is trying to strike a real good balance between career and family; conservative." (Also modest.)

An owner of a GMC Safari minivan explained, "I feel comfortable, confident that it's a safe vehicle. It fits my lifestyle. It says, 'Here's a suburban housewife with children who needs space for groceries and passenger space for carpools.' It fits the image of middle-class suburbia."

On the other side, the disconnect for some consumers is that such mainstream brands can seem boring, unsophisticated.

Quality no-name brands

Store-brand package goods are equal in certain categories to the advertised name brands, some consumers insisted. Image Rejectors especially see themselves as smart shoppers for not being lured into paying more "just for the name."

"Cheap stuff"

There is a level that is simply too low, where quality is sacrificed for low price. Such brands are not worth it unless the buyer is "in a budget crunch," temporarily or otherwise. Needless to say, they are often reluctant to use such brands socially or publicly. Generic brands have pretty much died out because consumers put them in this category.

The brand clubs are also part of the hierarchy. Some are exclusive clubs which make users feel they are special, different, individuals, or cutting edge. These can be high-priced, sophisticated, or offbeat. Other brand clubs are mainstream, middle-America clubs which make members feel part of a larger group or even society as a whole. A critical juncture for the exclusive clubs occurs when the brand crosses over to mainstream; the early adopters may no longer want to be part of such a mass group.


Our research on how consumers connect with or disconnect from brands suggests several ways for marketers to build brand bonds and to avoid bond-breaking:

* Aim for 100 percent loyalty but don't expect to get it. Many consumers refuse to be exclusively loyal in a variety of categories - there is too much choice, too many bargains, and a self-image need to experiment. However, home-base loyalty and dual loyalty mean many consumers will keep coming back to their main brands. They have a relationship with your brand, if not total loyalty.

* Don't take consumers' loyalty for granted. Don't think that long-term relationships, even with 50-plussers, are fixed for life. Even the Steadfasts will walk away if the quality drops significantly or the new advertising alienates them. They'll try new or different brands which offer better value, interesting benefits, or image enhancement.

* Keep up the quality of your product or service. If you keep lowering the quality-testing the current version versus the most recent version, rather than the original one - consumers will eventually notice and leave.

* Be patient. Keep up the brand image through quality, advertising, and public relations efforts. Long-term longing can pay off for pinnacle brands - a number of consumers will buy years or decades after setting their hearts on them.

* Start with youth in building brands. The brands that make an impression on children, teenagers, and young adults will often be selected by them as adults. A corollary is to reach them through their parents; habits and loyalities are passed down.

* Appeal to nostalgia. Be timely and timeless; innovate while keeping the brand character. Many opportunities still exist to revive dead or moribund brand names from the past.

* Create good price/value relationships at all price levels. Many consumers will pay more for quality and brand image if they feel they are getting something in return.

* At the pinnacle and the premium levels, give consumers intrinsic reasons to buy - quality, style, safety, reliability, craftsmanship, etc. Don't make them feel or look (to themselves or others) as if they are just "paying for the name."

* Connect through brand "clubs." And remember that different types of clubs exist: special/exclusive, cutting edge/trendy, Middle America, and so on.

* Stimulate word-of-mouth. This can be done through distinctiveness, exclusivity, great advertising, talk shows, charitable contributions, and/or making news.

* Make customer service be a consumer connect and reconnect by showing genuine interest in customer satisfaction.

To some extent, the message to marketers is very simple: make me feel good about myself - smart, chic, sophisticated, tasteful, successful, mainstream, an individual, frugal, a good parent - or whatever I am seeking. Brands that do this will attract and keep a good deal of their customers' business - if not their total loyalty.
COPYRIGHT 1997 World Advertising Research Center Ltd.
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Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Langer, Judith
Publication:Journal of Advertising Research
Date:Nov 1, 1997
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