The Roots of Brand Loyalty Decline: An International Comparison

By Kapferer, Jean-Noël | Ivey Business Journal Online, March/April 2005 | Go to article overview

The Roots of Brand Loyalty Decline: An International Comparison


Kapferer, Jean-Noël, Ivey Business Journal Online


Brand loyalty is a marketers' Holy Grail. And so it always will be, writes this French academic. One of the reasons is that as long as they try to win consumers' loyalties by restricting choices, marketers will only succeed in encouraging consumers to try and experiment with as many brands as possible. Paradoxically, loyalty can best be obtained by allowing consumers to make as many choices as they wish to make.

To say that brand loyalty is in decline today is, at the very least, an understatement. A common, unequivocal conclusion emerges from almost all research: Consumers are more versatile and less loyal than they ever have been. Studies on consumer satisfaction indexes have long demonstrated that, when contemplating their next purchase, satisfied consumers do not automatically buy the same brand of car or television set. Far from it, in fact.

Interestingly, consumer behavior theorists have coined new terms to describe this new situation. 'Choice repertoire' identifies the fact that a consumer can no longer be identified by a brand, but rather by a set of brands he or she will choose, with a specific probability, within the same product category. It does little to alleviate the marketers' pain, whilst helplessly watching the decline of brand loyalty, to speak of 'shared loyalties' or 'divided loyalties', or even 'multiple loyalties'.

There is no single answer to what is, in fact, a long-term trend (Kapferer) , although it is too often claimed that the decline of brand loyalty started in the last ten or twenty years, a claim caused to be made by a lack of memory or by the habit that of believing that economic life changes every decade. Economists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and philosophers have all proposed alternative and complementary explanations. It is not our purpose to summarise them here ; any interested reader knows them all, more or less. What concerned professionnal journal or conference has not addressed this new situation?

Letting the words speak

In this article we would like to specifically contribute to an understanding of the phenomenon of declining brand loyalty through the rarely discussed perspective of semantics.

This work follows the pioneering works of R. Barthes, A. Baudrillard or, more recently, the philosopher A. Etchegoyen's analysis of the same subject. Semanticists remind us that the words we use are not simply words; they refer to concepts and carry with them a number of underlying connotations, nuances of meaning and even history that it may be useful to examine. They may reveal not only the roots of the language we use, but also the roots of the phenomenon under scrutiny, in this case, the decline of brand loyalty.

Furthermore, it seems fruitful to add to this exploratory process an international vision. Multicultural analyses are relevant on several scores. Firstly, of course, to avoid ethnocentric bias but also because the decline in brand loyalty is a global phenomenon. But the main reason may lie elsewhere. By making cross-language comparisons, we may discover, in the etymology of the language, differences in the concept of brand loyalty itself. What might the nuances in the roots of words themselves reveal to us about the phenomenon?

We have limited this endeavor to three languages, English, German and French. The writer, (a proud European himself!), speaks these three languages. His mother tongue, French, belongs to the group of Latin languages that include Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Rumanian. This inevitably widens the perspective of this analysis to include the Americas, Brazil and beyond. As such, our scope here goes far beyond three European countries. However, in our search to understand the roots of brand loyalty and its decline, they serve to provide the basis of our cross-cultural approach.

Striking differences between cultures

Any studied comparison of the languages we use across borders will reveal subtle differences that may have previously gone unnoticed. …

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