A colleague of mine and I recently had a lively debate over the primary goals of a solution we are working on, called mKonnect. We often look at a problem from very different sides (he’s much more of a Star Wars guy and I think Star Trek can mop the floor with Chewbacca), so I was a little surprised as I slowly came around to his view.
I’ll frame the debate this way. Is brand loyalty an outcome of brand engagement or are they two distinct goals that need to be pursued separately? While ostensibly the debate was about mKonnect, we were really talking about the primary goals of brand marketers.
My initial thoughts were that these are not different goals – that engagement led to loyalty, while my colleague’s view was that they were indeed two completely different marketing goals that needed to be backed by separate strategies and tactics. I’ll lay down both our arguments. Let’s hear from you on what you think.
Where I stood: The Star Trek view
Brand engagement is the fundamental goal of a brand manager, I argued initially. I mean, don’t brand managers try to ensure that consumers are seeing, feeling, experiencing, associating and indeed fantasizing about their brands? If a brand can evoke these feelings, then logically, will loyalty not follow? I used my example from my teenage years following Star Trek. Star Trek appealed to me because at a very base level I was able to insert myself into the Star Trek narrative and wanted to boldly go where no man has gone before. Warp speed became a part of my language as in: “<fill in name of the waitress>, could I get my sandwich at warp speed please”.
Engagement clearly led to loyalty – didn’t it?
While true, let’s hear out the flip side of this argument.
Where I stand today: the Star Wars view
Using engagement as the sole mechanism to garner loyalty is to idealize the issue. The argument misses at least one important factor in the environment – Competition. For example, while growing up – Star Trek was about the only staple science fiction show that we got to see on Indian television. Would I have been an equally big fan, if alternatives existed? I don’t think so. Therefore (had alternatives existed), my affinity to Star Trek would have to be enhanced with certain switching barriers – maybe in the form of Star Trek prize entry competitions, which would have enhanced my loyalty.
Let’s take the example of Apple, the current darling of brand gurus worldwide. Is Apple’s appeal (no pun intended) only a result of the engaging brand and fantastic products they bring to the market? Is the closed environment, the strict user experience guidelines for development, the fact that you can only make Apple brokered in-app purchases, etc., not raising your switching barriers to non-Apple products and services?
Let me take a more direct example to illustrate the point further. You’ve probably got an Airline Frequent Flyer account, which the airline uses to drive loyalty. With every incremental purchase, the airline is effectively increasing your switching barrier. But are you truly flying the airline because you are caught up in their engaging brand narrative? How many times have you flown recently on your preferred airline and come away feeling that it was one of the worst service experiences you’ve had? And yet you have gone back and flown that once more just because it was taking you closer to your free Hawaii trip?
Now, it could be argued that Airlines are least likely to evoke the word “engagement”, but does that make the formalized loyalty program any less potent? The dysfunctionality of airline brand engagement aside, aren’t loyalty and engagement two distinctly different goals, pursued with distinctly different tactics? If airlines were able to back-up their “hold the customer hostage with miles” programs with an engaging service experience, would that not make them some of the greatest brands in the world?
I believe it would. I’m starting a research to explore all three models now. Let’s hear from you – which kind of brands have the most brand appeal – those that follow the pure engagement model (think Star-bucks), those that follow the mixed model – engaging brand backed up by a formalized loyalty program (think American Express) or those that rely primarily on a formalized loyalty program to retain consumers (any airline program of your choice)?
So in summary, Chewbacca you hairy mono-syllablelous (that’s not a word – something I just made up) monster, this round goes to you. Kirk out.