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When Sparks Fly
Long-lasting bonds happen when "loyalty flashpoints" strike.

I was on a flight last week and the guy sitting next to me had a Harley-Davidson logo tattooed on his arm. Did he work for Harley? Was he a weekend biker? Why Harley? What kind of brand-bond would possess a person to tattoo a logo on his body?  I had to ask.

Turns out, yes, he has a Harley — actually a few of them. He started riding in college and has been at it, off and on, ever since. On one ride, about 10 years ago, he and his friends decided to stop in Prescott, Arizona. They went out for the night, and he met an amazing woman who would become his wife and with whom he now has a family … and a few more Harleys!

This got me thinking about that powerful, indelible moment, when an experience combines with a connection to form a brand and loyalty is formed. Here comes the science: The loyalty some people feel for brands is not all that different from the love they feel for each other.

A few years ago, husband-and-wife psychologists Dick Barelds and Pieternel Barelds-Dijkstra wanted to understand how relationships endured long after the initial spark that brought married couples together. They interviewed 1,000 couples in three different groups.

The first group was couples who had been longtime friends before they started dating. The second was couples who had numerous dates before eventually deciding to marry. The third was couples who had immediately fallen head-over-heels in love.

acostaAs the researchers began to question the couples about their deep, emotional connections, they uncovered something quite amazing: The couples who had experienced love at first sight described an extraordinary level of intensity for each other. In fact, they reported that their recollection of the moment that initially sparked their love — that flashpoint — intensified as the years passed by.

For years, marketers have thought of loyalty as something that was earned through continuous and frequent usage. “Loyalty” became synonymous with continuity, collect-and-redeem and points programs. The traditional purchase funnel suggested that loyalty was established as consumers moved along a pathway of awareness, consideration, intent and purchase. This implied that loyalty was attained only through a series of brand interactions and predictable Pavlovian responses.

This old notion of loyalty, in fact, cheapens its meaning and defuses the importance of true brand-loyalists. True brand loyalty is born in that flash, when a brand and an experience collide to create an indelible connection. When this loyalty flashpoint occurs, the energy creates a brand bond that can be recollected, shared, and amplified.

To fully understand this “loyalty flashpoint,” we need to look at the conditions that create the blasts, the tools we have to substain them, and the force multipliers we can create to amplify the effect.

Loyalty flashpoints require a “wow” experience and an inspirational brand message. Forrester’s 2012 Global Online Survey of brand marketers underscores that many of us have a long way to go towards understanding this.

The survey, which asked respondents to define the top-three objectives of their loyalty campaigns, found that only 37 percent of marketers felt that “consumer engagement” should be one of them. At a time when elevating the consumer experience is paramount to achieving enduring success, only 42 percent identified experience-based programs as a part of their loyalty plans.

As we all know, the human brain has two parts: the emotional and the rational. Because our rational brain has limited processing powers, it defaults to the emotional brain to tell us what to do. The emotional brain does considerable analysis and then sends a feeling to the rational brain. The rational brain then uses that feeling to make a decision.

What if you could create a connection, or “loyalty flashpoint” — a uniquely crafted experience that ensures a tighter bond between your brand and a potential fan? This flashpoint is not only the spark that begins the relationship with the consumer; it also provides the memory that can fuel, sustain, and amplify emotions over time.

But we shouldn’t stop there. The game-changer is the alchemy of threading loyalty flashpoints together, weaving social and digital touchpoints that, as a whole, make one + one + one = five.

Today’s digital ecosystem provides a force multiplier of epic proportions for sharing, cascading and experiencing brand loyalty flashpoints. Social networks — and online sharing behaviors and conversations — engage consumers, tap into what’s on their mind, and how to anticipate, react, and respond to their needs and aspirations.

The winning formula combines memorable experiences that win consumer hearts and minds. This requires extending those experiences online through branded communities or social networks that transcend short-term promotions and offer relevant social currency.It means supplying things of value so that you need not discount your products: unique information, relevant programming, and the opportunity to connect with local brand ambassadors and others with a shared common interest. That’s what will win hearts, minds, and wallets.

Influence happens when relationships start to deepen via conversations and sharing. This is how trust is built. Consider:

Seventy percent of our most influential personal relationships happen via face-to-face conversations.

Other forms of influence occur when we mirror the behavior of others in life and even in stores (20%), and 10 percent happens from our sharing and conversations via online networks.

It’s human nature to take advice from friends and to mimic the actions and activity of “the crowd” in your network.

Some 84 percent of Millennials say that social opinions — even from people they don’t know well — influence their purchase decisions (Bazaarvoice and Kelton Research, Advertising Age, August 2, 2012.)

The knowledge and measurable impact that experiences deliver enable us to expand when and where to inspire, create, reinforce, and activate loyalty. We can infuse loyalty flashpoints into digital experiences and connect them back to retail.

How are brands delivering consistent experiences that create loyalty flashpoints today? Where do experiences occur that surprise and delight the consumer or shopper? How can we extend these connections, to help break the cycle of discounting tactics and create true, sustainable demand?

For Tide, a “loyalty flashpoint” extended the experience from the aisle to the streets, and connected the brand with consumers in an emotionally appealing way.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Tide realized that those affected by the storm lacked the most basic needs, including laundry. Tide was inspired to participate in the recovery by launching the “Loads of Hope” program.

Loads of Hope is a mobile laundry service — a fleet of vehicles equipped with washers and dryers — that traveled to those hit by Katrina and, subsequently, other natural disasters across the United States. To date, it has traveled to a total of six cities, bringing relief to those whose homes and belongings have been destroyed.

P&G’s program created a branded engagement occasion that not only promoted awareness, but also fostered deep, emotional connections with consumers. Both consumers who interacted with Tide at the mobile site, as well as those who heard about the program through news reports, experienced a renewed sense of brand affinity towards Tide.

As the lead traffic driver to, Loads of Hope has sustained the relationship beyond the initial flashpoint. The program also succeeded in shifting the Tide brand from the “commodity” category to a product with lifetime appeal to its consumers on an emotional level.

Smirnoff has also created a flashpoint that extends exceptional experiences. Its global campaign, “The Smirnoff Nightlife Exchange Project,” brings together 14 countries to discover, share, and celebrate the best elements of each country’s nightlife.

Through the campaign, consumers’ ideas are captured online via Smirnoff’s “Idea Exchange” website. The ideas — each country’s favorite music, food, dance moves, fashion, and bands or DJs — are then made available for exchange. The collection is curated in each country and transformed into event experiences that are shared worldwide on one big night.

The experience and attendant engagement resulted in Facebook fan growth of more than 7,200 percent (more than 200,000 fans) and 36.4 million post views in 2010-2011 in Canada alone. The conversation is continuing, creating more flashpoints, and further deepening Smirnoff’s relationships with its consumers globally.

As marketers, we need to invest in creating these moments when experiences meet brands — these memorable connections that create loyalty flashpoints and provide our consumers and shoppers with stories to tell about our brands. We need provide them the runway to extend that engagement socially, and optimal store conditions and experiences that will remind them and keep them engaged and advocating for the brand.

Loyalty is about creating value beyond reason, through relevant connections along each shopper’s personal purchase journey. Loyalty happens when your brand becomes the only choice — even when price, points, or giveaways aren’t on the table. It’s when consumers act on their hearts more than their heads, and where emotional influences rise to the surface even when rational considerations are in play. It’s when consumers remember why they fell in love with your brand in the first place and are eager to tell their own brand story.

True brand loyalty is born in that combustible moment when sparks fly; it’s carried in a story of a new dance move from a club in France that can be shared with friends with a smile; fortified with every load of laundry courtesy of Tide; and internalized as a reliable friend every time a tattoo from long ago reminds you how a Harley truly can change your life.

lauren de simone
LAUREN de SIMONE is svp of strategy, innovation and growth at Acosta Marketing Group. She is an advocate for insights-driven integrated marketing and a proud granddaughter of merchants Rocco and Filomena Imundo. Email:

NOVEMBER / DECEMBER 2012 | PDF | Subscribe | Home