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Opinion: Brand loyalty vs relevance: Have we figured consumers out?

Opinion: Brand loyalty vs relevance: Have we figured consumers out?

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Marketing today has taken a completely different form compared to what it was five or 10 years ago. Before the rise of digital, technology, machine learning and with limited data access, a marketer’s task was simple and straight-forward – follow the simple framework of Marketing 101 that we have all been exposed to by the famous Philip Kotler: product, price, place and promotion, and success will definitely walk in through the door.

A marketer’s life was simple back then and higher volume depletion resulted in growth in market share and market position for brands and businesses. We also looked at consumers in the most simplistic manner which again, followed another framework developed by Abraham Maslow in his theory of “Hierarchy of needs” of a consumer which maps out the psychological needs of humans and their motivation. We were told that as long as we kept this need state in mind, all will go as planned.

There was nothing wrong with this and to be honest, we loved how things worked back then. But today, nothing is what it was before. So, what changed? Why did it change? Was change necessary to even begin with? Who rallied for change? Honestly, I don't have the answers to these questions nor do I expect anyone to have them either, but what I do know is this: We must change with time because one thing that is constant in life is change and if we do not get on that bandwagon, we will be left behind and become irrelevant – key word here being “relevance”.

So, the bigger question today is how do we approach marketing and what are our fundamental beliefs when it comes to marketing and consumers? And do we really have consumers figured out as deeply as we all have been claiming?

Personally, I have struggled between brand loyalty versus brand relevance. And when I say struggle, it is not that I don’t get it but rather, I find a complete misalignment in this within the marketing and communication fraternity. It is also a topic that creates so much disagreement amongst marketers and communication experts because everyone sees consumers very differently, which is not wrong but the question still remains whether it is entirely right though?

We tend to forget in most cases that we are consumers as well. For some weird reason, when we put on our marketing or communication hat, we forget that we are consumers. We create so many complexities in our thinking process of understanding consumers when the answer simply sits in plain sight. Technological advancement has given us access to billions of data points about people, so much so, that it has taken away something extremely precious from us – the magic of marketing.

We have been blinded by big data and graphs and charts and numbers and codes, that we simply forgot that consumers are beings who like things to be simple and easy to understand.

There is a reason why a billboard should only have a maximum of eight words – because we like things simple. This is where I am reminded that I am also a consumer and if I want things simple, who am I to complicate it for other consumers who also seek the same simplicity as I do when I put my marketer hat on and claim to understand consumers?

I don't think we have consumers figured out. We claim to have but in reality, we don't because if we did, then we would know that loyalty to a consumer has a very different meaning compared to a marketer. Loyalty is important in a relationship because it creates trust and it is important in an organisation as it demonstrates a sense of commitment but even in this instance, no one is really 100% loyal. Hence, the famous saying “I don't owe the organisation anything and the organisation owes me nothing”.

Today, I believe marketing needs to look at consumers differently and learn to differentiate loyalty and relevance. We all use the word “loyalty” because it is easy to check off the boxes for what we are trying to achieve and we believe that if we focus on building loyalty, business growth will eventually somehow come through because loyalty equals sales. This is exactly what I am not comfortable with because if we understand consumers (as we should as we are all consumers as well), we will know that loyalty can exist but does not necessarily deliver a sale or leads to a purchase.

What delivers a sale or a purchase is relevance because I can be loyal to a brand, but I might not consume it because it just does not fit my needs anymore like how it used to in the past.

But consumers are simple creatures so if a brand is not relevant to them for an extended period of time, their loyalty will eventually fade and the brand still ceases to exist in their lives. All that would be left is the nostalgic memory of how the brand “used” to be a brand that they love but not anymore because it fell off the relevance radar in their lives.

Let’s take Blackberry as an example. At some point in our lives, each of us was a Blackberry fan, especially in Asia and specifically in Indonesia. It had 99% penetration in the market due to one simple feature: Blackberry Messenger. If you didn't have a Blackberry, you were the odd one out and the brand dominated the market position for years. And one day, it lost its consumers.

Was it the result of consumers not being loyal to the brand anymore? If so, why? What caused the drop in loyalty? The answer is simple – it is not about loyalty. People who used Blackberry loved the brand and what it stood for which was privacy. But when that was all it had to offer when consumers were demanding more, consumers naturally turned to other brands that were meeting their needs with cooler features and better technology. A simple case of losing relevance. Had Blackberry continued to innovate and evolve, it might still be around protecting their user base.

Marketers and communication experts today need to stop thinking loyalty and start focusing on relevance because history has proven to us that if we are not relevant, no matter how much love one has for a brand, it will fall out of favour eventually, and that focusing on loyalty alone, is not sustainable for any brand or business.

We need to come to terms that loyalty is the result of a continuous relevance play in a consumer’s lifecycle.

Many marketers feel that they are doing the right thing when they focus on creating relevance by increasing loyalty by capturing more attention. Although this isn’t entirely wrong, the risk in that approach is that you can attract attention, but attention will fade as quickly as you capture it because what virality offers in amplification to capture attention also inherently lacks in long-term sustainability for any brand’s relevance. We need to start looking back at the magic and not just the science alone. Yes, you can be more effective with your ad spend by reaching out to your target consumers in a more precise manner with data, but the art of long-term sustainable conversion lies in the magic that attracts and holds the emotions of consumers.

Remember one thing, we, the consumers, are simple creatures and we don't really know what we need until we are told about it.

The writer is Hemanth Jayaraman, head of dentsu X, dentsu Malaysia.

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