What is that indefinable brand quality every company wants to achieve in the minds of their customers? Advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi calls it “loyalty that goes beyond reason,” or, more simply, “love.” This level of devotion may even have physiological implications. In 2011, the BBC program Secrets of Superbrands worked with a team of neuroscientists to use MRI technology to compare the brains of Apple fans to those of people who identify as very religious. The researchers found an overlap between the parts of the brain activated when an Apple fan saw an Apple product and a religious person saw imagery related to their faith.
This near-religious status of devotion is achieved by extremely few brands. Ask yourself, how many occupy this position for you? For many people, only small, niche brands inspire this kind of love. Artisanal foodie outlets – such as indie coffee shops, local bakeries, or other eateries – come to mind. On a much larger marketing scale, you may think of tech companies, like Apple, an upmarket car marque, or your favorite luxury brand. In other words, the number of brands for which you feel “loyalty beyond reason” does not comprise a long list – so getting people to feel this way about your brand is probably going to take something special.
Three Approaches to Establish Brand Loyalty
Many brands seek to achieve consumer loyalty by making an enormous marketing investment; in other words, they pay for their customers’ loyalty – a lot. Putting aside the importance of other factors, like using emotive storytelling for improved communication with consumers, there are major challenges to prioritizing an investment-based strategy. This approach will certainly be expensive, and it may very well be derailed by the organization’s fear of taking a risk when the ROI is difficult to track. Finally, it could result in an enormously engaging advertising effort rather than consumer brand engagement. As a consumer, how often have you loved a piece of communication rather than the brand that delivered it? The fact remains that success at the level of “love” is achieved by very few.
If the first approach is to pay, the second is to try something different and pray that it works. Most organizations are reluctant to admit that, from time to time, they have prescribed to this approach. When you hear about a brand’s strategy being “bold” or “brave,” the “pray” strategy is often at play; all fingers (and other available limbs) are being tightly crossed in the hope that it all pays off. Though all strategy involves some roll of the dice, the key is to weight the dice as heavily as possible – clearly, praying for success alone is not a sufficient strategy.
The final approach is to play. A play-based strategy looks at how to build brand love through a completely different frame than that typically seen in the world of communication. In traditional marketing, something passes from the brand to the audience or consumer. When play is used to create this connection, marketing becomes more about building active engagement; that is, the customer experiences the brand rather than simply receiving messages about it. Brands that have achieved levels of love and loyalty that transcend the rational all have something in common. In different ways, they all deliver rich and immersive experiences. These can be described at some length, and somatically, as they are not just engagements of the intellect, but of the senses.
A Closer Look at Play in Branding
To fully understand the play approach, we must look at the nature of play itself. What is it, and what does it offer to brand strategy? This topic has a long history of research that goes as far back as Plato. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on one common definition of play: an activity that enables safe experimentation and learning. For instance, social play enables rules and boundaries to be explored, tested, and learned without the risk of doing something wrong. Play – however intense and purposeful it may be – is about pleasure rather than work or duty. Play need not be about frivolity, nor must it be designated as childish; but it is engaging, and it comes without the weight of expectation for “real world” outcomes.
With this in mind, play presents a great opportunity for brands wanting to build deep engagement with their consumers. A play-based strategy should help customers engage, enjoy, and experience in ways that minimize the barriers of risk or cost. For example, Apple stores deliberately feel like places customers can enter without the intent of making a purchase; they are playgrounds for browsing and advice. Burberry soared to success when, in 2016, it began allowing customers to buy clothes online directly after seeing them on the catwalk. Meanwhile, Disney’s immaculate online experience allows customers to explore different options and possibilities as they plan their trips to the theme parks. These different brands all allow their customers to experience much of the pleasure of anticipation without obligation.
It’s relatively easy to see how brands that are already deeply experiential engage customers without overtly focusing on the transaction at hand, and this principle can also be applied more broadly. While a part of fans’ loyalty to Apple, for example, is gained via the experience offered by the brand’s brick-and-mortar stores, there is also a wealth of opportunity for brands like Apple to create better experiences via digital. Clothes and accessories can be modeled via avatars; customers can visualize home goods and furnishings in their houses using augmented reality (AR); services can be personalized; stories can be shared in new and interesting ways; and brand worlds can be created for customers to explore.
Finally, while “play” is distinct from the “real” experience it imitates, it is important to recognize that the two do intersect. One of the most fascinating of all neurological phenomena (and the competition is intense) can be seen in the theory of mirror neurons. Simply put, mirror neurons help people imitate and understand behavior, as they fire both when an animal performs an action and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.
As Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, explained in an interview with Scientific American: “When I see you smiling, my mirror neurons for smiling fire up, too, initiating a cascade of neural activity that evokes the feeling we typically associate with a smile. I don’t need to make any inference on what you are feeling, I experience immediately and effortlessly (in a milder form, of course) what you are experiencing.”
This means that we don’t just identify what other people are experiencing – we actually experience it ourselves. This could be an extraordinary gift for companies trying to build their brands. By simply welcoming customers into their virtual brand world, organizations can evoke a certain feeling of belonging.
Brand building happens most powerfully on the back of experiences rather than messages. The challenge and opportunity for brand builders is to create brand experiences that enrich, engage, and involve consumers in a way that leads to loyalty beyond reason, which, like love itself, is unconditional.