There is an elusive element to any communications and branding project: loyalty, or more specifically, how to increase true loyalty. Our pursuit of this intangible component is synonymous across industries, fields and environments.

Whether it is a company seeking to garner brand loyalty, a marketing campaign that aims to redefine the connection between consumer and product or service, a political figure who depends on support across time and space, or simply a person who yearns for a companion who offers unconditional faithfulness, loyalty is a cornerstone to success in many different contexts.

Loyalty

We develop loyalties with many tangible and abstract things, whether it’s family, country, religion, identity, product, or brand. We can draw a lot of what we understand today about loyalty from philosophical theory.

As consumers or voters we define our loyalties through consciously acquired commitments to a brand, product, or institution. It is important to note that loyalty is not only defined by a person’s interaction, purchase, or vote – it is a malleable element of a person’s being and a justification of one’s loyalty depends on an intrinsic connection to that brand, person or product.

Connection

Connection, whether spurred by an emotion of nostalgia or the feeling of alikeness, builds the foundations of loyalty.

The most important aspect that we can pluck from traditional philosophical assumptions is that the strength of any claim of loyalty depends on the importance and the legitimacy of a person’s association (i.e. personal connection).

In other words, it relies on one’s perception of their relationship with a brand or a political representative: is it legitimate? Is the relationship mutual? Is there an element of dependence? Is it authentic and meaningful? And is that association nurtured?

Our industries, at its most basic form, would define loyalty as the situation in which a consumer generally purchases and re-purchases a product over time, rather than buying from several sources. The same applies to a political election campaign where loyalty would be defined as the situation in which a constituent votes and re-votes for your candidate, rather than switching between parties.

From there you enter into secondary aspects of loyalty: referrals, leads, and business development from the corporate perspective and volunteers, donations, and word of mouth branding from the political perspective.

Unconditional Association

We all know the offsets of true, unconditional loyalty within any industry, but where we focus a considerable amount of our attention is on how we achieve that level of allegiance. Many believe that it’s a robust and extensive loyalty rewards program, multi-million marketing or PR campaign, or an investment of numerous hours per day engaging your digital community on social media.

I’m sure these campaigns would yield sizable benefits in their own right, but it’s more than just thinking about loyalty as a binary equation: (time/money) + (forum/vehicle) = widespread loyalty. This is far too simplistic.

It’s more than that – much, much more. We need to understand how to operate, engage and carry ourselves in that space in order to be successful.

Care and Trust

Interactions within either the private sector or public sector need to be not only perceived, but believed to be authentic. Perception and reality are two different things. Authenticity is a precursor to what we described above as “connection”.

It is remarkable how readily identifiable self-preservation or selfishness is in any environment a person finds themselves in. The fear of this happening is not that people may feel betrayed or used, but with the emergence of social media, these actions often lead to revolt and a public flogging.

This is not good for your bottom line, your support base, or any pursuit of loyalty building and preservation in the future.

In your daily interactions, build trust by caring about your audience’s environment. Invest the time to not only engage, but to take action wherever possible. Caring is not synonymous with chatter; it’s much deeper than that. Take a stake in those around you and build the currency that is relevant to your community.

This might be different from what others may tell you, but I believe it is important to care just as much about your supporters as it is about your detractors or sceptics. Including everyone in your discussions and engagement goes a long way in building a brand that is compatible with trust and authenticity.

Deliver on the Unexpected

Dialogue and engagement are only the foundation for loyalty. Go beyond just words and deliver something unexpected to your audience. It doesn’t have to cost a considerable amount of money, but it needs to mean something. The phrase “mean something” is critical.

It could be a featured article on your website, a small token of your appreciation, a connection or an introduction, or it could even be just recognition within the digital space. Deliver in ways that go beyond simple interaction.

Customer Service

One of the best examples of this I can think of is Starbucks, in-store and in the digital sphere. On numerous occasions I have received a free drink because I waited a painstakingly extra three minutes for my $4 beverage. They have a unique ability to make me feel incredibly important and they clearly understand the value and currency of my happiness.

The service, mixed with delicious coffee of course, is why I keep coming back. If it were between Starbucks and another shop with the same tasting coffee, I would choose the former every time. My loyalty continues to strengthen because they understand how to take care of their customers, happy or otherwise.

Just like within the digital world you must acknowledge, engage and act on inquiries or complaints. There are clear policies and processes for this, but the ROI from your time (online and offline) is vast and contributes directly to loyalty growth. Taking an issue from a complaint via Twitter to a tangible deliverable is remarkably powerful.

Trajectory

As I have maintained throughout this post it does not matter which industry or sector you operate in, loyalty defines a certain level of your success. It doesn’t take money, sophisticated strategies, or a degree in psychology to understand the importance of authentic compassion, unconditional involvement, investment in your interactions, unique action, and detailed care.

For example, if you look at Dogfish Head Brewery, a small craft beer company in the U.S., they have more than 84,000 followers on Twitter and their engagement style is remarkably personal, dedicated and sustained. There are many other examples in juxtaposition, large corporations, who vehemently practice outbound messaging, limited engagement and self-serving practices.

Whose brand loyalty do you think is stronger from the digital perspective? I completely understand the latter may gross more profit and may garner a certain level of loyalty through other means, but in terms of emotional loyalists, Dogfish Head Brewery rivals any multinational corporation fraught with capital to spend on marketing and branding.

This is a perfect example of how to build a brand that is connected with your customers on an authentic, grassroots level.

Growth

Developing loyalty begins with how a person or a brand carries itself from the centre, top-down, and horizontally. Nurturing loyalty within a customer or voter base is an endeavour that takes time and understanding.

A person could spend their entire working days cultivating relationships on Twitter and it wouldn’t necessarily correlate to sustained loyalty. What people need to understand is that it goes beyond just time invested; it depends on how you foster trust, worthiness and reliability with those you interact with.

Seek to develop a relationship that is similar to one you would have with a person you care deeply about. Viewing these exchanges through this lens reshapes how you carry yourself within your field.

Application

What builds loyalty in the digital sphere is exactly like what builds relationships in your personal life. Take a moment and reflect on this type of analogy and identify three different characteristics you look for in a friend or a colleague or a business partner.

These elements that you highlight can almost always be implemented into any digital interaction and engagement strategy.

For example, when I think of what makes a good business partner, reliability is almost always at the top of my list – being there for someone else, following through on promises or assistance, and being a person who can be depended on. This is how I would want a digital community or customer base to view me as well. Model your brand in a way that mirrors what you believe to be “reliability”.

Take the time to map out how you perceive loyalty and act in a way that promotes those subtle nuances and vital characteristics. By consciously reflecting on this abstract element of a strong relationship you can effectively integrate personal characteristics into a digital format.

Image from B2C