Commentary

Become A Reference Brand: Leveraging Consumer Psychology To Drive Brand Addiction

As marketers, our primary goal is to create brand addiction. But as the word implies, there's a complex interplay of consumer psychology that fuels this level of engagement.

Emotionally meaningful experiences between a consumer and a brand feed this addiction, and missteps can derail it. It’s up to us as marketers to breed trust, prevent defections, and create advocacy. It’s up to us to create “reference” brands.

A reference brand is the consumer’s touchstone, the brand to which all competing brands are compared. Reference brands are built methodically, positive experience on top of positive experience, until the consumer has built a mental wall around the brand that protects it from (most) skepticism and doubt.

This is clearly an advantageous position, and becoming a reference brand is a more sustainable avenue toward customer retention than even the most aggressive pricing initiative or loyalty program. And it encourages a sticky kind of advocacy, even if the brand struggles (think Tesla’s consistently enthusiastic customer base, even as the company misses production dates and grapples with ongoing supply chain issues).

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The Rise and Fall of Reference Brands
These committed brand relationships can also carry a cost, however. Reference brands are not immune to customer dissatisfaction; that protective mental wall is not impregnable.

In fact, research into consumer psychology indicates that while consumers are ordinarily quick to leap to the defense of their reference brands, they can also be slower to forgive brands that make a mistake they deem serious enough. It seems the deeper the relationship, the harder the break-up is for both parties.

Textbook examples of this phenomenon are everywhere. United Airlines’ frequent fliers taking scissors to their cobranded cards last year when the airline showed the unfriendly side of its skies. Tropicana losing 20% in sales after it redesigned its logo and packaging, attributable to a small core group of passionate customers. Then there’s the “Delete Facebook” exodus.

Still, the reality is, these customers have varied responses. Rather than abandoning the brand at the first sign of an unmet expectation, only actions that violate their psychological “contracts” are likely to break their trust.

So there are limits to the protections of the reference brand fortress.

This creates a conundrum for marketers. How do we know which perceived errors will alienate our best customers? Is it worth creating brand addiction if the break-up is so brutal?

Brand Addiction vs Brand Abandonment
The answers to those two questions: “We can’t know” and “Yes.” The unrealistic advice for brands is to get it right the first time, no matter what. While that’s not always possible, we know the best way to get close is to start with data, and make deliberate decisions based on it.

Your best chance of surviving a misstep is to have encouraged brand addiction in the first place, and to have become the reference brand for as many of your customers as possible to ensure that course correction is achievable.

So it behooves brands to invest and investigate methods to spark brand addiction, and that starts with making consumer psychology a consideration in all decision-making phases. Is your advertising and branding enhancing trust? Does your in-store design create positive, streamlined experiences?  Is your social media engagement strategy encouraging brand advocates? Are you actively preventing your best customers from defecting to the competition?

Keeping these questions at the forefront of all marketing discussions is how brands can begin to reshape consumers’ psychological relationship with them and drive brand addiction. And they are ultimately how brands can increase their revenue and profitability in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

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