The Brand-Consumer Connection: Finding Loyalty in the Loops

Coauthored by HCD’s VP of Research & Innovation, Michelle Niedziela, PhD, and Manager of Behavioral & Marketing Sciences, Kathryn Ambroze

As seen in the memory issue of NMSBA’s INsights mag…

A positive, personal experience with a brand tailored to habit formation is an effective way to make a product become a household staple. Growing up baking with a certain type of chocolate chip or cleaning with a specific disinfectant spray shapes expectations and acceptability, with the brand being at the cornerstone of the experience. Chaudhuri and Holbrook (2001) explain how consumers expect a product to perform a certain way based on prior experiences, creating trust and loyalty to that brand of that product. Some brands can become so deeply embedded in consumers’ lives that they act as an extension of self-expression, a representative of who they are (van der Westhuizen, 2018). Through brand loyalty and aversion to ambiguity, consumers bypass unnecessary circumspection in their shopping, gravitating, and depending on the more familiar instead of taking any chances (Muthukrishnan, Wathieu, & Xu, 2009). This intricate relationship between consumers and brands demonstrates the importance of brands in life, impacting daily routines as well as special holiday traditions. Paying attention to changing perceptions, associations, and preferences allows brands to mold to the current needs within consumer habits. By connecting to the consumer at this deep level, brands can be embedded in fond memories, in consumer lifestyles, and ultimately, remembered for future purchases.

Every association counts

Associations, or mental links, are built through experiences. Information from all five senses—touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound—are utilized to learn and create an association profile to better anticipate what to do if a similar situation occurs again in the future. Furthermore, the knowledge obtained helps to predict the best course of action to take for each situation presented. Humans automatically evaluate uncertainty and risk of a situation to prepare an appropriate response. By creating comparisons and associations to minimize uncertainty, individuals gain comfort in making foreign concepts familiar in order to behave accordingly. By validating personal beliefs through meeting expectations, associations are reinforced and replaced..   

A consumer’s interaction with a brand is made up of several components which consist of sensory, behavioral, intellectual, and affective elements (Brakus et al., 2009). Each of these individual facets plays a bigger role in developing the overall perception of the product. Experiencing the brand, either by watching an ad or holding the physical product, allows the consumer to evaluate its ability to meet a need. The information gathered from brand exposure can be stored and later recalled using memory. But, it is through the automatic processing of implicit memory that allows even small encounters or incidental information to impact the way consumers react in the future (Keane, Cruz, & Verfaellie, 2015). For example, seeing fluffy clouds during a pillow commercial may impact the perception of the product’s softness or comfort. Every lived experience can establish an attachment between the two concepts, thus creating a conceptual link in response to the circumstance.

Neural networks, or pathways, communicate and respond to changes in environmental cues (Berkman, 2018). These connections are updating constantly as situations change and more information about an environment is gathered. The neural pathways are not fixed— associations can decay or strengthen over time depending on how frequently they are utilized. More commonly used pathways are stronger and require less effort, thus conserving energy. Memories also link performance to contexts such as people, items, places, or times typically present during the overall repeated experience (Wood, Tam, & Witt, 2005). Brands can become part of a repeated action by fitting in the proper context and bringing value to the experience.

The malleability of the neural pathways creates an opportunity to mold products or messaging to consumer ideals and better align them with the desired experience. Consider the best way to engineer a product to be identifiable and remembered by a consumer. This communication and design strategy should reflect the values and expectations of the consumer, making the product not only more enticing to try, but also encouraging repeat purchases. By designing a product which meets expectations of the consumer, it will more likely avoid reappraisal and create satisfied product experiences.

Let’s make a habit of it

Those repeated actions are frequently performed as habits. Relevant contexts cause certain behaviors to be routinely rehearsed to the point where they becomes automatic. Habits, which often include products or brands, are engrained throughout daily life. By diving into how brands are incorporated into habits, product developers can better innovate to meet and exceed those needs. Improving the products or messaging, strengthens or redirects existing associations to better meet expectations. By embedding the brands into the habit loop, brand innovation can truly impact the consumer lifestyle, since experiences are so interwoven with everyday living.

The habit loops consist of three fundamental components: the cue, routine, and feedback. Cues initiate the habit loop by acting as a trigger for the behavior. A cue can be as obvious as an alarm reminding consumers to restock the toilet paper to something as covert as the delicious smell of freshly baked pretzels pouring out of a bakery. Although both examples insinuate different anticipated outcomes, they change the environment which causes the consumer to react. The response to the cue is the routine which involves some type of expense, such as time or energy. Based on the feedback within the context of the habit, the individual will be motivated to either avoid or repeat this routine in the future. The feedback is what entices or deters the consumer to continue to partake in the routine. Therefore, consumer’s perceived response of the product must be a positive contribution or else the consumer will take preemptive measures, such as buying a competitor product, to prevent the same outcome. Feedback can be anything from a punishment, such as running late to work for hitting snooze, to a reward with a social benefit, such as seeing friends after work. Habits are governed by dopamine release, which is linked to triggering the (good or bad) motivational importance of an environment or context, thus “stamping-in” a memory for future consideration (Wise, 2004; Berkman, 2018).

Figure 1: An example of a habit loop consisting of a cue, routine, and feedback. The cue, or the mess, initiate the behavior to use a cleaning product, ultimately resulting in the feedback, a cleaner space. Credit: HCD Research 

Brand loyalty demonstrates how a product or service can be integrated and reinforced into the habit loop.  The brand can connect with the consumer by contributing to a life experience. The brand identity impacts the overall product experience, which the consumer evaluates to decide if the quality is worth continuing (or discontinuing) in the future.  By fulfilling an unmet need, the brand recognition may resonate with the consumer to encourage purchase intent. The relationship with a brand is impacted by how it’s perceived, making it important to ensure each component of the product experience creates a unified, cohesive message which resonates with the consumer. Using cues, routines, and feedback to understand where the brand can help consumers can be a beneficial strategy for its adoption into regular use. Furthermore, detecting cues in the habit loop can aid in achieving higher-order benefits in emotional and physical well-being through indirect suggestions (aka behavioral nudges). Emphasizing certain perceptions through communications or packaging can build up a consumer’s reason to believe in the product and encourage continued brand loyalty.

If it isn’t broke, improve it.

Memories connect the past to the present. It is through learned associations that habits can link certain triggers to predicted outcomes (Wood et al., 2005). Creating a brand identity to reliably serve a purpose in the consumer’s life allows the brand to take on a role larger than its original purpose. Once the brand is part of a routine, the individual will find comfort in its familiarity and build a connection to the experience. Additionally, if a brand outperforms its competition, it makes sense why the consumer would prefer it within the routine since the outcome creates a greater reward. However, to retain consumer loyalty, the brand must actively work to remain relevant. Checking in to fit the needs of the consumer means a brand must reshape to the new ideals. The brand must evolve to position itself within the habit loops. In consistently having a space in the consumer’s lifestyle, it builds brand confidence. Recalling on past experiences allows consumers to depend on a brand, proving in each purchase brand experience is worth the cost. 


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