- Justin Hunter
On October 20, 1977, a mid-size private plane ran out of fuel, crashing into the woods outside of Gillsburg, Mississippi. The crash killed Lynyrd Skynyrd lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and backup vocalist Cassie Gaines, among others. At the time of the crash, Skynyrd was one of the biggest rock bands in the world. They dominated southern rock and seemed to transcend rock around the world.
That year, their album Street Survivors sold over two million copies. With their lead singer and two other core band members gone, it seemed 1977 would be the end for Lynyrd Skynyrd as a band. And for a while, this proved to be true. The remaining members of the band disbanded for ten years before reuniting with Ronnie's younger brother, Johnny Van Zant, taking over as the lead vocalist in 1987. While the new version of the band never sold as many albums as the original band did, Lynyrd Skynyrd was able to continue drawing massive audiences to their shows.
Between 1987 and 1988, the band played over 50 concerts. In 2001 alone, they played 73 concerts. This trend continued over time despite the band being comprised of increasingly different members than the original band. Without their original lead singers and without key members from the original band, Lynyrd Skynyrd was not only able to survive, but they were able to succeed.
The parallels to software products may not be obvious, but what we see with the history of Lynyrd Skynyrd is an example of brand loyalty in action. This has happened countless times with bands. Queen built such a massive brand thanks in large part to Freddie Mercury's vocals that Mercury could never match Queen's success when he went solo. Black Sabbath was able to transition away from Ozzie Osbourne to Ronnie James Dio because of the band's loyalty. Of course people loved Freddie Mercury and loved Ozzie Osbourne, but what they loved more was their connection to the band. It's why music fans play their favorite albums long after the bands that made those albums stopped making music. How can you create products that emulate this level of brand loyalty?
To help answer this question, I turned to a new app currently in beta testing called SoundOff. The app is built by a fantastic team including Jason Novack, Dan Kantor, Samantha Stamler, and Richa Naik. I was fortunate enough to A) have already been in the beta group and B) get my question selected to be answered by the community. The app allows people to pose questions and then the community records audio-only responses to the questions that are publicly available and can be played at anyone's leisure. If you're on iOS and you'd like an invite, you can use this Apple Testflight link.
Here was the question I asked:
Besides cost, what makes you loyal to a product or brand?
The answers came from all different types of people, and they were helpful in understanding brand loyalty behavior. From listening to the clips, I was able to extract three main themes:
What's interesting is all three of these themes, to me, roll up into a singular theme of experience. Which is exactly what bands provide. The experience of listening to a band is an emotional one that covers nostalgia, quality, and service. Service is different in the context of products and bands, of course. For a band, service could mean the specific experience of attending a live show, it could mean the way you buy their albums or stream their songs.
Even more interesting, is two answers to my question both referenced Bounty Paper Towels as an example of a product they are loyal to.
Cathy from Cleveland said:
I think I'm loyal to certain brands from growing up with my mother's choices like Crest Toothpaste, Hines Catch Up, and Bounty Paper Towels.
And Kathy from New Jersey said:
If it's more effective, better in what it's designed to do, for example, I'll always choose a Bounty paper towel over a Kirkland
This could simply be that all the Cathy/Kathys in the world like Bounty, but I think it's something deeper. Bounty hits on all three items I listed above. There is a nostalgia factor. Bounty has been around since 1965. It's likely that your parents and even your grandparents have fond memories of the product, and those memories are passed down to you. Bounty has always been associated with quality. This may be marketing at work, but by and large, the United States trusts the quality of a Bounty Paper Towel. And from a service perspective, Bounty has had a 30-day money-back guarantee for as long as the product has existed from what I can find.
Brand loyalty is often considered a marketing problem, as opposed to a product problem. However, I think product is the primary driver of brand loyalty. But how you build a product to support the three themes above and drive that loyalty?
Nostalgia is probably the most difficult theme for a product team to consider. How can you build a nostalgic product? There are two ways you can do this. You can do it through design. Build something that evokes the emotions you have found to be tied to nostalgia. PoolSuite.fm built an entire music streaming site around the nostalgia of late 90s music players and Summer vacations. The other thing you can do when building for nostalgia is build things that last. You may not see the benefits of this work for many years, but by taking the anti-Google approach of building products that are likely to be thrown away, you have a better chance of achieving longevity and buying nostalgia for your product.
Much like building for longevity, quality is something completely under the product team's control. In tech, we live in an MVP world. Ship it quickly, get feedback, and iterate. But once you've learned what you need to learn to go strong into the market, it's time to focus on quality. David Vandergrift, CTO of 4Degrees suggests that once you've penetrated the market, it is likely time to transition to quality focus. You can't simply keep moving at break-neck speeds with development.
To serve these customers and gain substantial market share, a startup must set aside the move-fast-and-break-things mentality in exchange for a measured, circumspect approach to development.
The concept of service is one that many company relegate to cost centers. They offshore their customer service teams. They reduce support hours. They try everything they can to reduce the number of inbound messages and calls support members have to respond to. And that is exactly why part of building brand loyalty must revolve around service. When your competitors are not doing it well, you have an opportunity to build loyalty by simply helping people. Crazy right?
Grant from New Jersey had this to say in response to my question on SoundOff:
I would say customer service specifically in regards to how broken products are handled. I've had some companies that say you have to buy a new one or you have to pay to have it fixed and then you also have to cover shipping and that makes me not want to do business with that brand again. Conversely, with sunglasses, for example, both Rivo and Costa Del Mar have replaced my sunglasses which broke for no really good reason and given me a new pair. And in the case of Costa once they gave me, allowed me to pick a new style when the style that I was trying to replace wasn't in stock. And that made me a lifelong brand advocate for those brands. I think that doing right by customers in when they need it is a key differentiator and been building brand equity.
It should come as no surprise that doing right by customers will help turn them into lifelong fans. Zappos founder Tony Hsieh wrote an entire book about this idea called Delivering Happiness.
When I started building out the product team at Pinata, my first hire was a community manager. We decided early on that support would be a function of the product team and an opportunity to build better products while driving brand loyalty. It was one of the best decisions we made as a company.
Experience leads to brand loyalty—assuming the experience is great. Good is not enough. The experience is what matters. Going and seeing a band in concert where the set is only good is not enough to drive you to be loyal. Going to a concert where the entire set list has you on your feet singing every song along with the band like you're up there on stage has the recipe for true lifelong loyalty.
Combining the power of nostalgia, quality, and service will help you build products that drive the type of loyalty that will ensure long-term success.
Special thanks to the SoundOff community for great answers to a question I think is very important to all PMs.