Marketers love their brand zealots -- those fanatic fans whose influence and impact is wider and stronger than ever in today's socially networked world. They are treasured and rewarded for all they do to drive net promoter scores, lifetime value and positive word of mouth. In many cases, they were the early adopters. They were instrumental in establishing the brand. And as much as they helped fuel the early growth of the business, they just may be holding you back.
Growth may require less devotion to the early adopters
On the surface, the suggestion of parting ways with some of your most passionate enthusiasts makes little sense. But if you dig deeper in tracing the source of their devotion, understanding what originally attracted them to the brand and how they derive their gratification, you may come to find that your respective interests are no longer aligned.
Impressionists: Finding value in what the brand says about them
In looking at the evolution of certain brands, particularly statement-making brands that attract an image-conscious consumer, their early success was often fueled by dedicated followers who not only loved the product but valued the exclusivity of the brand. We'll call them the Impressionists, since their gratification is externally derived from the reaction of others. Their emotional payoff is dependent on what someone else thinks of them based on their association with the brand. It makes them feel special, and they love what the brand says about them. In many ways, the brand helps define their identity.
Happy Hedonists: Finding value in how the brand makes them feel
As the business grows, things change. The brand establishes broader relevance and wider appeal, perhaps even moving into the mainstream. And as the customer base expands, many of those new to the franchise are coming in for entirely different reasons. Their gratification comes from within, derived purely from the product experience itself. They value the brand for the way it makes them feel, not the impression it makes on others. The brand plays more of a life-enriching versus image making role, providing them with pleasure versus defining their identity. We call these customers the Happy Hedonists, given their pursuit of pleasure and happiness as a way of life.
Obstructionists vs. sustained relationships
For marketers, the Impressionist versus Happy Hedonist distinction presents significant implications for growth. In many ways, Impressionists are obstructionists. The growth of the brand is not in their interest. If it becomes more mainstream, they feel less special. It's as if there is a fixed supply of happiness to be derived from the brand, and they don't want to share. While the brand's relationship with these Impressionists can be intense and passionate in the early stages, it often ends up being a tenuous fling. Happy Hedonists, on the other hand, offer a more sustainable relationship that can yield more enduring value. Since they value the brand based on their personal experience and gratification, they’re not threatened by growth. There is no fixed supply of happiness; they have a “more the merrier” mindset. As long as the product performs, they will buy more, remain loyal and advocate willingly.
This dynamic has played out across a number of categories and brands. In automotive, brands like MINI and Porsche must navigate this tricky transition as they expand their lineup with SUV models that risk alienating the purists. Similar balancing acts have occurred in CPG with brands like Kashi, Evian and Red Bull. Same thing for emerging musical acts or exclusive resort destinations that get discovered. Two brands that have really pulled it off on a grand scale? Apple and Starbucks. They have managed to attract hordes of Happy Hedonists while mitigating the Impressionist backlash through brilliant product innovation and an exceptional customer experience.
Who loves your brand -- and why
So think about who loves your brand and why. Don't stay too focused for too long on appeasing the Impressionists if it risks attracting more Happy Hedonists. If the Impressionists opt out, be willing to let them go. Embrace those whose interests are aligned with your own -- the ones whose motivations are more personal and whose allegiance is more powerful.