Brands With Benefits

Lately, when I hear brand managers talk about the need to increase brand loyalty among consumers, I wish I could transport them, in black and white, to the set of I Love Lucy or Father Knows Best. There they would find an uproarious and appreciative live studio audience from the 1950s, applauding their every double take and laugh line. Because for brand managers desperately clinging to an outdated and anachronistic definition of brand loyalty, that is the only audience they will be able to connect with.

No matter how tempting it may seem, today's brands should ease up on their singular goal of a long-term, monogamous relationship with consumers. No matter how much they like it, they ain't gonna put a ring on it. Instead, brand managers will find greater degrees of engagement if they start a little more casually and demand a little less commitment up front. More "friends with benefits" than "'til death do you part."

Don't get me wrong. I am a firm and proud believer in tested-and-proven, old-school marketing fundamentals. There is a part of me that is wistful for a time when messaging was delivered over three television networks during a clearly established prime time, a handful of print publications and a few major retailers. It certainly was simpler. And it certainly is over.

Today, no matter where you look or how you choose to measure, the effective audience engagement at the heart of great branding is growing infinitely more complicated by the moment. Forget the often-discussed digital explosion in media outlets, the role of social media and mobile and the increasingly global market alignment that brands must balance. SKU explosion alone is enough to demand a radical review of what brand loyalty even means anymore.

Today, the average, mid-sized supermarket is bursting at the seams with more than 60,000 different SKUs. Rapid innovations in digital printing are driving a veritable renaissance in packaging and a virtual ultimate fighting cage match for shelf space -- all to catch the eye and fancy of the increasingly capricious and commitment-shy consumer.

But even the brands that recognize this new reality are prone to drawing the wrong conclusions. It is not just about having multiple brands in a choice set. Consumers are not looking for brand polygamy or Mr. Goodbar, either. They are simply growing comfortable with choice and are more open-minded about their purchasing options. It is not an empty or meaningless action. They love you when they are with you, but they understandably reserve the right to explore and experiment in an extraordinarily diverse marketplace.

Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing doesn't really matter -- it is the new reality. But I personally believe that it is a good thing. Though I recognize the challenges and stresses it presents -- particularly in the areas of measurement and market share -- this is an exciting time, rich with opportunities for not just challenger brands and new products, but also established ones.

Rather than constantly trying to extend the life of consumer commitment with short-term plays like aggressive discounting (they just make you look cheap, honey), brands should focus on inspiring a strong connection and sustaining positive association. They must never take their relationship with a consumer for granted. Added value, excellent user experience, compelling messaging and consistency across multiple touch points will create the kind of attraction that draws other brands' wanderers, and also inspires and establishes a consistent pattern of return users. Rather than falling into the tired rut of an old married couple, brands must take advantage of the fact that they have more chances than ever to establish and rekindle the romance with new and repeat customers.

While this may appear to be a seismic redefinition of loyalty, it's also a far more realistic one that presents brands with a host of new options and possibilities. Explore those possibilities now. Because unless your target consumers are primarily timber wolves, swans and geese, it is time to rethink the goal of having them mate for life.