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How to Earn Brand Loyalty in an Unloyal World Increasingly, there has to be a higher ideal than just your bottom line if you want your brand to build loyalty that lasts.

By FlexTal Edited by Jason Fell

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Carlina Teteris | Getty Images

This article was written by Mitchell Terpstra, a member of the Entrepreneur NEXT powered by Assemble content team. Entrepreneur NEXT powered by Assemble is a freelance-matching platform leading the future of work. If you're struggling to find, vet, and hire the right freelancers for your business, Entrepreneur NEXT will help you hire the freelancers you need, exactly when you need them. From business to marketing, sales, design, finance, and technology, we have the top 3 percent of freelance experts ready to work for you.

Let's face it. We can't all be Amazons.

While headline after headline drums up shock and awe at Jeff Bezos's exploding net worth since Covid-19's arrival, very few of us can hope to replicate Amazon's success based on selling nearly everything from the pinnacle of convenience. After all, there can only be one #1.

When it comes to brand loyalty, many consumers may badmouth Amazon's near-monopoly on e-commerce or its insipid response to many social issues. And yet, many of them will continue to click "Buy Now" because Amazon has made online shopping ridiculously easy.

But not all of us can bank on our business's convenience-factor overriding other aspects of its reputation. Nor can we all expect pandemic-related safety measures to play right into our hands.

With lockdowns, curfews and other restrictions altering normal business operations in many parts of the world, some recent studies are suggesting that brand loyalty is at its all-time shakiest.

One report by McKinsey revealed that 75 percent of consumers have altered their shopping methods since March 2020, predictably switching to more and more e-commerce retailers as brick-and-mortar stores were closed. Another survey revealed that more than 50 percent of consumers have tried new brands during that same time, most commonly due to product shortages. Big, old trusted brands — presumably with the most dependable supply lines — have only increased their market share.

So what are the rest of us entrepreneurs supposed to do to earn some consumer loyalty in an increasingly unloyal world? Here are three areas to focus on.

Invest in high-quality customer support.

Things go wrong; bad stuff happens. Sometimes it's your company's fault; often it's not. But that doesn't mean customers won't try to hold you responsible anyway.

Whether it's product defects or shortages, delayed shipping times, service interruptions or otherwise failing to meet expectations, having a high-quality customer service program ready to field grumpy customers' complaints, sympathize with them and provide quick solutions is often all it takes for them to do a complete 180 and, in many cases, become one of your loudest brand advocates.

Cheerful, knowledgeable, responsive customer support is so integral to brand advocacy and contributes to your brand's word-of-mouth marketing because it gives your customers a ready-made narrative by which to introduce your brand.

Think about it: a resolved customer support issue has all the elements of classic storyline: characters (them and you), conflict (customer complaint), hero (your customer support personnel) and resolution. Nearly every bad business review is a customer service opportunity gone wrong.

And it doesn't take much for folks to walk away. According to a study of consumers across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, one in three consumers are willing to walk away after one poor customer support experience. More than one bad experience and 90 percent say they're taking their business elsewhere.

Of course, what form that customer service takes will vary depending on your brand's product or service and size of operations. Whether it's as simple as a dedicated inbox with a trained customer service professional to handle grievances, or a as complex as an integrated system of chatbots to field more common complaints and human personnel who can triage the severity of more exacting issues is up to you to figure out.

The number one problem shared among entrepreneurs today is finding, vetting, hiring, and retaining expertise.

Find your brand's mission and have it inform everything you do.

As younger generations age and assert more purchasing-power, their impact can be felt far and wide. One way millennials and Gen Z-ers are shaping markets is by favoring brands with socially conscious missions. Eighty-percent say they want to make the world a better place, and they're looking for brands who are likeminded in this pursuit.

And their influence is trickling upwards across generational lines. While millennials, Gen Z-ers and younger folks make up roughly half of the American population, 66 percent of consumers across all age-groups say they're willing to pay more for brands with socially responsible missions.

Working toward sustainability or addressing any one of a number of social equality issues are common elements of mission-driven branding. TOMS Shoes is a flagship example of mission-focused branding. Beyond delivering a high-quality product, TOMS practices a "one-for-one" policy, donating one free pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair of shoes purchased.

Integral to the success of mission-driven branding is that it has a high degree of relevancy with both your brand's core product or service as well as the passions of your target market. As a maker of outdoor-adventure apparel appealing to outdoor enthusiasts, Patagonia's mission to use business to protect nature makes a lot of sense. On the other hand, Burger King's campaign to combat childhood obesity? Come on, man.

Why is mission-driven branding so effective for brand loyalty? A need for a product or service may come or go, but a shared commitment to a bigger picture offers consumers a reason to care about your brand and root for your success long after a transaction is over. And when done well, that is when done genuinely, with measurable positive impacts toward your brand's mission, it allows your brand to cut through the natural cynicism consumers feel towards advertising and marketing.

Acknowledge brand loyalty by rewarding it.

One last area to focus on for developing and sustaining brand loyalty is by calling out that loyalty directly through rewards programs. The first step to any strategic rewards program is realizing that not all customers are equal. What distinguishes your best customers—the ones you would really like to be loyal over a lifetime—from the rest? Is it frequency of purchases or use of service? Total cart spend per visit?

Perhaps it's something unique to your business. State Farm Insurance, for example, pioneered a safe driver reward program back in the 1990s, realizing it was just as much in their interest to reward safe-driving customers as it was to disincentivize reckless drivers who were costing the company money.

Loyalty-based rewards programs often take one of two approaches: a paid-subscription approach (think REI's co-op membership) or a points-accrual approach (think Starbucks). Both aim to encourage repeat purchases and motivate ongoing interactions with your brand. The key difference is that the paid approach asks potential members to pay a fee to receive access to exclusive, and often much more substantial, savings, whereas the points-accrual approach allows repeat customers to build up points, which, once a goal is reached, unlock certain rewards (freebies!) or discounts.

While at first glance, asking customers to pay to enter a rewards program may seem like a big ask, the membership fees can help to offset the savings offered, help identify customers with a very high repeat-purchase intent, and lock in a key customer segment in a largely undifferentiated market.

At root, all three areas above—customer support, mission-driven branding, and loyalty rewards programs—share a common denominator: customers want to be seen as more than customers by you. Acknowledge their humanity by sympathizing with their complaints, sharing in their passions, and expressing gratitude for their ongoing support, and you'll set your brand up for fruitful relationships over the long haul.

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