Required Reading: Making Sense of Irrational Loyalty

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Every organization eventually faces a PR disaster. That cold, hard fact also provides the premise of Irrational Loyalty: Building a Brand That Thrives in Turbulent Times, which looks at the high-profile PR calamities that have befallen companies like United Airlines and Wells Fargo and asserts that building a base of customers who will stick with the company no matter what is the key to surviving such meltdowns. Associate Editor Sam Del Rowe spoke with author Deb Gabor, who is also founder and CEO of Sol Marketing, to find out more.

CRM magazine: What is “irrational loyalty?”

Deb Gabor: Irrational loyalty is where customers are so strongly bonded to a brand that they’d feel they were cheating on that brand were they to choose an alternative. Irrational loyalty keeps customers buying iPhones year after year, even when they know there is superior technology with greater durability, higher performance, and lower prices out there. Anyone who identifies as a Coke person vs. a Pepsi person is demonstrating irrational loyalty to a brand.

When customers are so loyal to your brand that they wouldn’t even consider thinking about—let alone buying—a competitor’s brand, you’re setting yourself up to create meaningful and profitable customer relationships that increase in value over time, while preventing the competition from threatening to distract your customers.

What goes into building irrational loyalty?

Creating irrational loyalty requires companies to view their brands as not just a monologue of marketing and advertising to their customers, but as an all-encompassing relationship with them that can be strengthened or weakened with every touchpoint.

I often tell my clients that they’re managing an emotional bank account with their customers. We create the emotional bank account by being aligned on our values and beliefs as individuals. When companies behave in accordance with the promise they make and the values and beliefs they extol through their marketing and customer experience, they make deposits. When they do something that seems out of character or not in accordance with what customers have been conditioned to think is appropriate for that brand, companies run the risk of damaging the overall relationship.

Brands deposit into the relationship by addressing an acknowledged need for their customers, delivering on their promises consistently, and behaving in a way that aligns with their customers’ own values. They earn more money by surprising and delighting customers in unexpected ways, by delivering over and above their competitors and demonstrating to their customers that they are respected, valued, and loved.

What are some common mistakes that companies make during PR disasters, and how can they be avoided?

Many companies are poised to weather PR disasters very well because they’ve invested significantly in building up their irrational loyalty coffers. BlueBell Ice Cream had a devastating listeria outbreak in its manufacturing plant in 2015 that resulted in three deaths and a number of serious illnesses. As debilitating as something like this was, BlueBell prevailed, continues to enjoy a high degree of irrational loyalty, and has even grown into more states and channels. That’s because they did everything right in addressing the disaster. They showed concern for humanity and then swiftly took action without pointing fingers at anyone. They apologized. They took full responsibility. They communicated a plan for how they were going to prevent anything similar from happening again. They stayed in touch with their communities, their employees, the buying public, and the grocers who carried the brand. BlueBell was gone from the market for a few years, yet many raving fans stuck by BlueBell’s side, cheering them on to return.

This exemplifies the absolute worst kind of disaster a brand can experience and demonstrates how a solid brand foundation and the correct and accountable way of dealing with a disaster can bring success on the other side. Some companies don’t have the strength and foundation to endure such disasters.

Do you have any other examples of companies that have handled PR disasters well?

I think about how Starbucks handled the PR crisis that ensued in Philadelphia last year when two men were arrested for coming in to use the restrooms without making a purchase. To date, the Starbucks CEO’s apology letter remains the textbook example of how to communicate in the face of a crisis like this.

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