Thursday, March 26, 2009

This is Your Brain on Brand Loyalty

A new study just came out on how we make choices in the March 25 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. The brain research has major implications for marketers.

The original study, done in 1956, showed that after choosing between two similar home appliances, women claimed that the one they picked was better and the one they rejected was worse than they originally thought. But no one really understood why.

Now new technology that allows researchers to look into peoples’ brains and study its parts as they are making decisions, can help us better understand how people make choices.

The research was done twice, once while people were deciding what vacation destination they preferred (Greece or Thailand), and after they chose Greece as where they wanted to go.

As the research participants were mulling over their choices, the candate nucleus or part of the brain that attaches emotional significance to things, became much more active. After they had selected Greece people were asked to view both options again. When they viewed Greece, the candate nucleus became even more active than before. But when they looked at photos of Thailand, the brain's activity slowed dramatically.

What the heck is she telling me this for? Because we are marketers. People make decisions every day about whether or not to buy our products or services. We try to convince them to choose us. But if they don’t choose us, this research shows that the case against us they made during decision-making strengthens. It’s a normal effect of human brain processing. The dating implications are huge – but that’s another story.

This research strikes the very core of brand loyalty. When a customer chooses our brand she decides she likes us more than the other choices. And she convinces herself (or at least her brain does) that she's made the right choice. The brain sends out all these signals making her believe her choice is by far the best product out there.

So as marketers we need feed that choice when it's originally made and nurture it. And show this customer our love. Because if she chooses another product, which is unlikely unless we really screw up, she will repeat that same investment process again. And bringing her back is really, really hard.

Remember touch point marketing? That 90s term invented by some advertising or marketing guru who said at every point we interact with the customer we have to deliver the same level of service and quality to keep her loyal to our brand. That wasn’t just a catchy slogan. He or she didn’t know it, but that’s how our brains work. We are loyal because once we make a decision we convince ourselves that the decision is right.

So if someone calls your company and goes through computer hell to get an answer to a question – hello every automated customer service department or one that is located on the other side of the planet – it chips away at that loyalty. If our product doesn’t work right the first time it chips away at brand loyalty. If tech support doesn’t call you back within 24 hours, or ever, it chips away at brand loyalty. And when our customer decides to leave - despite what her brain originally decided - it's a done deal.

Here’s my story. I really like Verizon Wireless for my cell phone service. Everywhere in this country that I go except at the top of the La Jolla canyon and on a mountain in Yosemite, my cell phone has worked. Others have failed when I cross from Maryland to DC. Or go to a different state, etc.

And the Verizon Wireless people are really nice to me. I was supposed to get $150 worth of rebates on two Verizon phones and I never got them. So I called Verizon Wireless customer service and within seven minutes they took $150 off my phone bill. And said they were sorry. Turned out I wasn’t the only one. And every time I have dealt with them they made me feel valued. Every time.

So then I decided to switch everything to Verizon Fios – Internet, cable, land line (yes I still have one). And Verizon Fios really, really screwed up. Two days before I was supposed to transfer my service they shut off my old Internet which was also through Verizon. And I’m a home based business. Two full days.

So I spent the better part of the first day trying to get Verizon to turn my service back on. And I spent two hours going from person to person until I finally ended up in India yelling at some poor guy I could barely understand who read to me from his service manual. Another 2.5 hours later after being put on hold countless times while he called America, he finally concluded that they couldn’t turn it back on. So I told him to cancel everything.

And then the Verizon Fios people showed up at my door two days later because the guy in India has no power whatsoever - even to tell them to stop the service call. And once a month after that for about six months some Verizon Fios guy would show up at my door to change my service back.

But I was done when I finished with the guy in India. I called Comcast who came out the next day and turned all of my service back on. And I converted everything in my house to Comcast. They also explained that Fios (even with its commercials that have spooky houses and people with no service who go with other companies) isn’t really all that different than they are.

But I still kept Verizon Wireless for my cell phone service. Because when I deal with them, my brain tells me again and again I've made the right choice. And I will never, ever in a million years switch to Fios because when I even think about that situation my brain shuts off.

My candate nucleus made that choice. Then it validated it. Over and over again. And that is what brand loyalty evidently comes from. It’s primal and it’s a survival thing. It tells you to move on and stay with the decision you made. Try convincing someone to switch brands if they’re really loyal. Doesn’t work.

That’s my post for the day.

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