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Do you have a brand you just can’t live without? Maybe you’re a geek for Apple products, buy all your shoes from Zappos or simply refuse to get your groceries anywhere but Trader Joe’s.

These companies might not appear to share much in common, but all three are household names with extraordinarily loyal followings. Their success stems from the ability to deliver exceptional customer experiences and develop innovative products and services that customers can’t get anywhere else. Consumers don’t just like these brands — they love them.

As a professor of marketing at Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business, I study brand love as a form of connection that goes beyond just enthusiasm for a company or its products. When consumers love a brand, they form a lasting emotional bond that can be incredibly strong.

Brand love is the highest level of passion a customer can have for a company and its products. It increases customer loyalty, encourages customers to become ambassadors for the brand and drives future sales. Surveys show that 73% of consumers are willing to spend more on products from a brand they love.


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Growing brand love

My own research, which surveyed 20,000 consumers and 152 brands over a 12-year period, shows that brand love is a strong driver of profitability. My co-author and I asked consumers to rate their affection for different brands on a five-point scale, from hating (1) to feeling indifferent (3) to loving (5) the brand. We found that a one-point increase in brand affection is associated with a 4.8% increase in a company’s return on assets two years later. These findings indicate that spending aimed at growing brand love can have a significant pay-off over time.

How can companies cultivate brand love? Since 2017, U.S. businesses have invested more than $235 billion in marketing and brand-building programs, driven in part by a growing recognition that brand love is critical to success. Yet advertising alone isn’t sufficient to build love, especially over the long-term. My research found that advertising is effective at building brand awareness, but overspending on advertising can actually negatively impact brand love as potential customers begin to tune out.

To build brand love, companies need to do more than just tell customers what they offer or how they stand out. They need to fully understand their customers’ journeys and find meaningful ways to impact and improve their lives. My research has revealed two important ways companies can build brand love: By focusing on customer experiences and creating impactful innovations.

Engaging with customers at every turn

Unique, meaningful customer experiences are essential for brands to create emotional bonds with consumers. Zappos is a great example of this. The company built its reputation by going above and beyond with every customer interaction. An incredible 75% of Zappos’ revenue now comes from returning customers. More broadly, 83% of consumers report that they pay as much attention to how a brand treats them as they do to the product they’re buying.

To deliver better customer experiences, companies need to work hard to engage with their customers at every turn. That means meeting consumers where they are and making it easy for them to buy products. For example, companies can offer a variety of physical and digital channels for purchasing products and reaching customer support. Companies should also proactively reach out to customers to ask for feedback, then act on that feedback to eliminate pain points.

In addition, companies can use their marketing budgets to turn ordinary events into memorable experiences. M&M’s, for example, transformed Times Square into an augmented reality playground and invited customers to join. That’s an experience customers won’t easily forget, and it creates an emotional connection to the M&M’s brand that fosters long-term brand love.

Innovation, ongoing investment

Innovation is also a key driver of brand love. New technologies, services and business models fill a need and offer something customers can’t get anywhere else. It should be no surprise that groundbreaking companies like Amazon, Netflix and Tesla are among the most-loved brands in the world.

However, innovation doesn’t necessarily have to be technological. The airline JetBlue won consumers’ hearts simply by investing in customer service in an industry that’s best known for leaving passengers wanting more.

Truly memorable customer experiences and innovative products and services are often the result of R&D investment. My research shows that spending on R&D increases brand love over time. Companies that want to build brand love should consider shifting some resources from advertising existing products (which my research found has diminishing returns) to developing new products and experiences for customers.

Fostering brand love is a competitive advantage and a key way that companies can encourage customer loyalty and increase their long-term profitability. To build brand love, companies need to invest in customer experiences and innovation. That requires funding R&D to identify market trends, consumer desires and opportunities. By understanding and fulfilling people’s needs, brands can build long-lasting emotional connections that benefit both their bottom lines and their customers.

Hang Nguyen is an associate professor of marketing at the Michigan State University Broad College of Business.


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