THINK ‘slut’, and you think of a person who flits from one sexual partner to another. What, you might ask, does this have to do with marketing and marketing trends?
We marketers are well versed in sexual terminology: We want brand experiences to ‘seduce consumers’ and ‘build intimacy’; we seek to increase clients’ ‘market penetration’; above all, we aim for ‘customer satisfaction’. Sex sells.
We also speak the language of marital fidelity, especially when the topic is customer loyalty. We describe faithful customers as ‘monogamous’. These monogamous types are the brand loyalists who make a choice, form a special bond with our brand and maintain a lifelong relationship with it.
The mindset of us marketers has been that once consumers bought into our brand and formed an emotional bond with it, they would stay with it — a true marriage. That may have been so when there were a limited number of brands, but now the choice is huge, and the markets are volatile. Competition is fierce these days.
As choice and competition increase, brand loyalty becomes endangered. In stark contrast to the monogamous brand loyalists, another group of consumers is increasingly prepared to switch brands within a given category. These are the shoppers actively seeking out — and willing to ‘go’ with — any brand that makes them a better offer. They are the brand sluts.
The term ‘brand slut’, which I began using in earnest last winter, in part to provoke a group of Dutch marketers (they are impossible to shock!), half-jokingly refers to a faithless consumer with little brand loyalty — one who belongs to everybody and nobody.
There are brand sluts on the street of every city. This is where you will hear a 20-something woman say, ‘I’m getting my new mobile next week… a Sony Ericsson, like my old one.’ ‘You like Sony Ericsson, do you?’ you ask her, ‘and, is that the brand you prefer?’ ‘Oh, no,
I don’t care, really,’ she
replies. ‘It’s the one
they’re offering as the
free upgrade. As long as it
does more stuff than the old one, the brand doesn’t matter to me. It also has to be the right design and color, of course.’ Of course.
So, we cannot confuse repeat purchases with fidelity. Manufacturers of big-ticket items such as cars gather data on the brand histories of their customers. They see one buying the same brand they purchased before and shout, ‘Brand loyalty!’ But repeat purchase does not necessarily indicate brand loyalty. The customer may be buying the same brand again for a number of factors: consumer inertia or laziness, a lack of interest in the product area or just playing it safe. There may be a lack of competing brands conveniently available — or it could be down to the pricing and deals available that day. The consumer who is a repeat purchaser for these reasons can easily turn into a brand slut when other suitors appear and woo them with better offers.
And, let’s face it, loyalty isn’t what it used to be — whether one looks at marriages, employer-employee relations, politics or just about anything else. With so many brands competing for their attention and custom, consumers have little or no incentive to pledge loyalty to anyone. They might as well enjoy the power that comes from pitting one brand against another.
As Jean-Noel Kapferer writes in the Ivey Business Journal (2005): “Brand loyalty can no longer exist because the very intrinsic definition of the term ‘brand loyalty,’ whether in English, French or German, [is] contradictory to the actual relationship between the producers and consumers. ‘Brand loyalty’ implies a type of matrimonial relationship based on exclusivity. This relationship is impossible, however, because the producer does not reciprocate the relationship, and our society is premised upon a fluidity of choices.”
What makes consumers stray?
There are five big trends pushing consumers to be promiscuous.
First up is commoditisation. Commoditisation is the name of the game in markets ranging from apparel to microprocessors. There are few products that can be considered special; the market quickly finds a way of making a similar product that is cheaper and does more. Commodities don’t command loyalty.
The second trend is outsourcing: When production is contracted out, what does the brand mean, anyway? If the marriage between the consumer and the brand is on the rocks, it is probably the brand that strayed first; it is not just customers who are the brand sluts. Once upon a time, companies made the products that proudly carried their brand names, but now, most of them outsource manufacturing to far-off places where labour is cheap. Similar products carry different brand names but are quite likely to be made in the same factory, by the same low-paid worker. A company’s label is often stuck on afterwards, rather than built into the product. Even when the product quality is high, what does the brand name offer besides marketing allure and margin? Why should the consumer swear loyalty to one brand over another, when chances are that the two very similar products he is considering have been produced in the same factory, by the same workers — and all there is to differentiate them is the label?
Consumers are discerning. They do not want to buy expensive, branded products when they know they can buy the same product, much cheaper, without the brand name.
Third, there is the trend of brand inflation. Too many brands just go through the branding motions. Brand-building was once an organic process, rooted in products. It grew into a discipline with a massive bibliography and thousands of practitioners.
These days, it’s not unusual to see the classic tail-wagging-thedog scenario: Brand marketers dream up a brand first and then retrofit products into it. Even deeprooted brands want to extend and leverage themselves into new product areas. Take Lego, for instance, which decided it needed to join the electronic age and so birthed Mindstorms; or Apple, which saw an opportunity to create a brand as powerful as itself that would marry computing and pop culture — and launched iPod.
The result is brand inflation: markets full of brands making similar moves using similar techniques, and often just creating a lot of brand noise. In 2003 alone, the US Patent and Trademark Office issued 140,000 trademarks — 100,000 more than in 1983. In 2005, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) received a record number of international trademark applications: 33,565. There is a lot of competition out there.
As a result, it is inevitable that consumers will form superficial emotional relationships with many brands and behave like brand sluts: easy come, easy go.
The fourth trend, driving the move toward brand promiscuity is rapid innovation. Why should we stick with one brand when others have great new offers?
These days, innovation is no longer the exception; it is the norm. In certain product areas, there is limited scope or need for innovation — as is the case with Heineken and Grolsch — so business continues as usual, and people stay attached to their preferred brands. But in new product areas with rapid innovation, it may not make any sense to stay with a brand — especially when the underlying technologies are commodities.
Take cameras. Nikon, Canon, Pentax and Olympus — four classic brands — dominate the traditional film camera category and command strong loyalty. By contrast, the digital camera category has the traditional camera brands plus dozens of electronics brands, such as Samsung and Hewlett-Packard, which just assemble commodity technology. If you purchase a digital camera, why go for one brand over another when there are fewer reasons and more choices? As with sex, so with brands: the greater the choice, the less likely you are to find loyalty.
The fifth trend driving brand sluts is the vastly increased access to information. What is the first thing we do when we want to buy a vacation, computer or car? Chances are, it’s to check out the internet. Smart consumers compare brands nationally and choose the best value. Miniwatts Marketing Group’s 2006 figures show that 207 million Americans use the internet. According to ZDNet.com, online searches rose from 4,085,880 in January 2005 to 5,699,228 in January 2006. The way we shop and the range of our shopping are changing.
There was a time when a wellknown brand stood for a guarantee. In days when standards were highly variable, a brand could be relied upon for a provenance in the origin, manufacture, ingredients, quality and functionality of a company’s products. You started the day with Kellogg’s cornflakes, drove to work in your Chevy, Ford or Pontiac, drank Coca-Cola, ate a Hershey’s bar and washed your sheets in Lux soap flakes — and you still might, but there are a lot of new kids on the block.
Today, intense competition, consumer watchdogs and consumer legislation have raised quality benchmarks and removed much of the risk from our purchase decisions. Many brands have become simply cosmetic allure, the emotional packaging of the underlying product. The wealth of information available on the internet — through product reviews, expert evaluations and comparison sites — enables consumers to make informed choices. We can see beneath the packaging and decide for ourselves what is on offer for our money. Knowledge is power, and there is nothing like it to undermine faithfulness. Today’s consumers are marketing-savvy. The younger ones, especially, decode advertising and spot marketing strategies like professionals. Books such as Naomi Klein’s ‘No Logo’ and Eric Schlosser’s ‘Fast Food Nation’ lifted the lid on manufacturing and commoditisation. Their thinking has permeated popular culture and made consumers more cynical about brands. The more consumers know about the marketing techniques used, the harder it is for brands to create mystique around themselves. It takes a very special brand, with real substance, to turn a brand slut into a satisfied brand loyalist.
But why should the consumer bother to be loyal to a brand when they have so much choice? In most of the world, ‘more choice’ is the mantra in everything from breakfast cereal to public services to utilities. This has created a widespread expectation of variety. It is a given that we have choice, just as we expect more features on products and more competitive pricing.
The subtext of greater choice is, ‘It’s okay to be unfaithful to brands,’ even ‘It’s smart to be unfaithful to brands.’ The more the market delivers options, the more sense it makes for consumers to become brand sluts.
To consider how brand sluts are created, look no further than the internet. Brand sluts are generally people who like a bit of everything — and there are plenty of them in cyberspace. Check out a makeup forum (www.makeuptalk.com), and you will find girls who use 32 different types of cosmetics, from classic Chanel, Lancôme and Estée Lauder to cool Urban Decay, MAC and Hard Candy. Or check out the Kiwi bike forum (www.kiwibiker.co.nz), where you can find a biker who can see the merits of all the bikes. Here’s a brand slut whose choice has nothing to do with ‘time riding’; rather, he seeks personal comfort, confidence and preference.
If you cannot hold a product in your hand, you look at the aspects that can be stacked and compared: price, specifications and performance. As more people shop online, emotional factors become less important than rational factors. Since the power of many brands is emotional, they are less powerful on the internet — particularly when alternative brands share the same computer screen. To the brand slut, the next brand is but a click away. In the physical world, brands can create 3-D experiences. We walk into a showroom, look at displays in shops, and notice distinctive packaging and alluring textures. We taste and smell. Despite its beautiful graphics, cyberspace limits the scope for rich brand experiences. The internet is still better at delivering information than at stirring emotion.
The brands of the 21st century need to ask the most important relationship question: Why should a consumer be faithful to them? After all, how faithful are they to the consumer? Is it a question of the pot calling the kettle black?
Whether it is the consumers or fans, the success is in the story. The brands that risk being at the mercy of brand sluts are those that are mere commodities overlaid with a bit of design and marketing. Some brands are much, much more. They have a real story to tell, with fans who follow the story, feel like a part of it and identify with the brand: think Fender, Harley-Davidson, Virgin Airlines, Jack Daniels, Zara and eBay. Consumers feel commitment to brands that have a real heart and soul — think Google or Apple. Monogamy is a two-way process. Being a brand loyalist comes with its own emotional reward.
As The Simpsons creator Matt Groening puts it: “The weird intensity of fans is fascinating. We succeed when we give them something worthy of their devotion. This is going to sound totally corny, but the idea is to honor fans for their enthusiasm, rather than just manipulate them into buying more products.”
A few brands have what it takes to inspire real commitment and loyalty by creating bona fide fans. For the rest, the realistic objective of brand marketing must be to attain higher awareness and higher preference among brand sluts.
This has clear implications for marketing strategies and budget allocations. ‘Fan brands’ waste money if they do not leverage their ‘stories’ in marketing; the rest waste money if they try to leverage a story they do not really have.
So let’s get real. Brand owners must ask themselves: Do we have a brand with a compelling story that is rooted in truth? If the answer is yes, and they can live the story, they can expect loyal consumers. If they do not, then their brands are essentially just ploys — empty marketing — and they should expect their consumers to be brands sluts.
The future presents a challenge. We have grown up with the belief that branding holds the promise of marketing nirvana for those who do it right. But things are not what they were. Conditions have changed, and there are far too many brands for consumers to feel an emotional bond with, any more than a few of them.
So what’s next? If your brand is best suited for a faithful relationship with its consumers, cuddle up and get closer; if not, best adapt and take what you can get from the easy come, easy go ways of the brand slut.
[originally from brnd eqty]