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What Makes Customers Loyal to a Brand?

How do you keep customers loyal? This question has haunted me since 1990.

I noticed that loyalty is an emotional response, not a decision. Let me illustrate.

Try a thought experiment with me. Imagine a group of 3- & 4-year-olds playing together on a playground. Their mothers watch from benches around the edge.

Now, imagine that you walk up to a child who doesn’t know you and yell at him as if you were very angry. The child’s mother sees you approach and hears you yelling at her child.

Can you predict what will happen next?

Of course you can. We know exactly how she will respond.

First, her adrenal glands will pour adrenalin into her bloodstream. Her body temperature will spike, her face will flush, her pulse will race and her respiration will increase.

If you ask her what she is feeling, she will say something like “righteous anger.”

She will spring out of her seat and sprint towards her child. She will scoop the child up into her arms, placing herself between you and the child. Then she will almost certainly attack you verbally using language you would normally expect from a drill sergeant.

Stimulus. Response.

As predictable as the sunrise. Easy to create on command.

The Mysterious Roots of Loyalty

That young mother won’t think about it before she springs to rescue her child. Her response is entirely involuntary. It requires no conscious effort on her part.

Loyalty is like that. It arises from deep inside us. It’s source is beyond our control.

Today, I’m meeting a friend to talk about how to cultivate brand loyalty. We’re meeting at my favorite coffee shop.

I’ve been to this coffee shop probably thirty times in the last eight months. I’ll be here again later this week. I take a lot of meetings here. Something keeps pulling me back here.

Why do I keep coming back? Is it the ambiance? I doubt it. Plenty of coffee shops look, sound and feel pretty much like this place.

And it isn’t the coffee. Although I love coffee, I prefer the infinite refills I can get other places.

And how much money have I dropped here this year? I know it’s a lot; more than I planned to spend.

So why am I so loyal to this particular coffee shop? I pass a dozen coffee shops every time I come to this one. What makes people loyal? What makes me loyal?

The Illusion of Quality

Would it surprise you to learn that you can create stimulate loyalty in customers just like you can stimulate anger in that young mother?

Obviously, this flies in the face of conventional wisdom.

For decades, going back to Tom Peters’ book In Search of Excellence, business people have taken the following logical statement as an article of faith:

IF you create a


  • Quality Product and deliver
  • Quality Service at a
  • Quality Price with a
  • Quality Guarantee…




  • you’ll win the customer’s loyalty


It all sounds good. It makes sense. It might even be true. No one would argue that quality is unimportant.

However, there is another path to customer loyalty, a more direct path. It’s the path that cuts straight through to the heart of the customer. I discovered this more direct route by accident.

By now, you’ve read or heard the story of my friends joining a cult. That unlucky event led to this lucky discovery. I’ll state it explicitly:

Loyalty is an emotion, not a decision.

Just like the mother defending her child, loyalty is the response we experience when we get the right kind of stimulus.

It’s an emotion that you can easily learn to trigger. And because it is an emotion, it’s not under our conscious control. Give them the right stimulus, and people will nearly always respond with loyalty.

How Do You Gain Customer Loyalty?

Loyalty is complex cluster of emotions. And it is this cluster of emotions that compels people to stay when leaving seems like the “smart” move.

What amazes me is how easy it is to trigger those feelings. Or – to be more accurate – it’s easy to create the kinds of circumstances that will trigger those feelings in people.

We humans are weird. We believe we are rational, and yet deny it nearly every day with our own actions. (I shall refrain from giving the obvious examples. Just read the headlines.)

So, how do you keep customers loyal?


Well, first make them feel loyal. Do that, and they will act loyally.

So how do you do that?

I’ve identified five particular categories of words and actions that stimulate the loyalty reflex.

Whenever a person sees or hears these particular words or stories, or when they perform particular physical actions, they will respond with the emotion we know as “loyalty.”

As long as you give people the right clues, they will respond with the right feelings. And those feelings turn into the actions that we label “loyalty.”

Quality Works, Though There’s a Faster Way to Loyalty

I suppose Peters was probably right, in a roundabout way. If you deliver all kinds of amazing quality for your customer, you will most likely create good feelings in them.

However, the more effective ways to build brand loyalty are to directly stimulate the loyalty responses.

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