Loyalty Psychology Series: Behavioural and Attitudinal Commitment Theory
31 August 2022
Scott Harrison

Behavioural commitment (the intention to stay) and attitudinal commitment (the preference for a company) are important concepts within the loyalty program context. These two types of commitment reflect the two-sided nature of the customer-brand relationship, and are important social theories for all loyalty professionals to consider during the design and improvement of a loyalty program.

Behavioural versus attitudinal commitment

Day (1969)[1] identified that methods used to gauge loyalty in the 1960s were flawed because they only measured purchase behaviour, and neglected to consider whether the behaviour may be due to lack of choice, long-term offers or better product positioning rather than true loyalty. He argued that many consumers who identified as ‘loyal’ lacked any attachment to the brand, and could easily be captured by competitors offering better deals or product promotion. Day hypothesised that loyalty should be measured by both behavioural commitment (where a customer repeatedly purchases a product or brand) and attitudinal commitment (when a customer chooses to be loyal because of a positive brand preference).

Beatty and Kahle (1988)[2] argued that brand commitment is conceptually similar to brand loyalty. Brand commitment is an emotional or psychological attachment to a brand within a product class, and appears to result from felt concern or ego involvement with the product or purchase decision (in other words, an attitudinal attachment). They attempted to predict the type of decision-making process subjects would make about soft drink purchases based on whether they had low or high commitment to specific brands. They concluded that commitment is the emotional or psychological attachment to a brand that develops before a customer would be able to determine that their repeat purchase behaviour was derived from a sense of loyalty. In other words, commitment to a brand is a precursor to genuine loyalty.

How to turn connections into true loyalty

A core feature of commitment is resistance to change. Loyal members that have formed an emotional connection (or attitudinal commitment) to a brand are more resistant to discounts and promotions from competitors. Pritchard et al (1999)[3] built a model which measured resistance to change as primary evidence of commitment. The model allowed for the measurement of loyalty, which accounted for both consumers’ purchase behaviour and attitudinal commitment toward the brand. It indicated that resistance to change (and therefore commitment) is maximised when consumers identify with the values and images embodied by a particular brand, and have a need for consistency and confidence in their decisions.

One technique brands use to build loyalty is to invite members to declare their level of commitment, ideally in a public space. Encouraging a public ‘commitment statement’ is a powerful technique for generating customer loyalty as people have a bias towards maintaining consistency which what they have done or have said they will do, thus avoiding inconsistency, an undesirable trait. A common example is 25 words or less competitions, where the entrant must write something positive about the brand or product. This is also widely used within the fitness industry to encourage members to continue engaging and ultimately derive satisfying transformative results.

Mattila (2006)[4] explored commitment theory as it related to loyalty programs in the hospitality industry. Her analysis suggested that the accumulation of points and accessing of rewards at major hotel programs such as Hilton Honors, Hyatt’s Gold Pass and Marriott Rewards were not sufficient to create loyalty. She argued that what was needed instead was to foster an emotional bond between the member and the brand, which is driven by both affective (attitudinal) commitment and calculative commitment (a sense of being locked into a service provider due to the economic costs of leaving). Calculative commitment may be confused with resistance to change, but scrutiny indicates it is more related to boosting resistance by introducing switching costs.

An example of commitment theory in real life

The tale of Blockbuster and Netflix

In 2000, Blockbuster led the video rental industry globally, with thousands of retail locations, millions of customers and substantial marketing budgets. According to Holmgren (2006),[5] engagement with their loyalty program Movie Pass was one measure of store productivity, alongside revenue and active members. Movie Pass was designed to offer benefits and enhance customer loyalty by encouraging customers to rent movies only from Blockbuster stores.

Blockbuster utilised a customer relationship management (CRM) strategy to segment their customer base as a way to build relationships with new members and preserve higher-value member relationships. From a loyalty measurement perspective, Blockbuster senior management may have been led to believe they had been successful in developing a vast, highly loyal member base. In retrospect, it can be argued that the majority of the base was primarily demonstrating behavioural commitment (such as consistent rental behaviour week after week) but not attitudinal commitment. This meant that Blockbuster’s business model was at risk of significant disruption from potential competitors if a better customer experience could be successfully offered.

Famously, Netflix provided that disruption by solving a range of inherent problems with Blockbuster’s offering; they did not charge late fees (Blockbuster’s late fees had become such an important part of their revenue model that the company’s profits were highly dependent on them),[6] their movies were always available (according to the company’s own figures, members could not get popular movies at Blockbuster stores up to 75 per cent of the time)[7] and they did not require two trips to a store to watch a movie (pick-up and drop-off). Blockbuster realised too late they had failed to develop attitudinal commitment amongst their member base, who were comfortable to leave behind a household name brand for a start-up which removed a range of key customer experience irritants.

Could attitudinal commitment have saved Blockbuster? It is unlikely it could have saved their business model, however if Blockbuster had been more successful in generating true emotional loyalty from their members, it may have slowed their demise, allowing them to transition to a new business model, such as their own streaming service. They would have been in a position to promote it to an engaged audience and grow more rapidly than Netflix, thereby offering genuine competition in an emerging market.

Commitment can be finite
Interestingly, Netflix may be facing a similar situation. The world’s dominant streaming service which redefined the way people watch television and movies is now a victim of it’s change. The platform is reporting slowing growth as it’s being forced to compete in the market it created, with the likes of Amazon, Apple and Walt Disney. These well-funded rivals have what Netflix lacks – a rich archive, knowledge of the advertising space and most importantly, thriving businesses outside of streaming which allows them to understand customer behaviour.

Netflix may have been able to disrupt the Blockbuster model, but it is unlikely the company shares the same level of commitment reflected in Apple customers. While Netflix isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, it can no longer take its first mover advantage for granted and may need to seek new ways to develop commitment beyond a better experience.

True loyalty is more than a behavioural change

The theory behind behavioural and attitudinal commitment provides important insights for loyalty program operators to consider when analysing their base of ‘loyal’ members. Behavioural commitment may be perceived as true loyalty, but without attitudinal commitment (ideally reinforced by calculative commitment), the program is at risk of rapidly losing members if a better product or service offering makes itself available.

[1] Day, G. S., 1969, ‘A Two-Dimensional Concept of Brand Loyalty’, Journal of Advertising Research, Vol 9, Iss 3, pp29-35.

[2] Beatty, S. E., Homer, P. M. & Kahle, L. R., 1988, ‘The involvement–commitment model: Theory and implications’, Journal of Business Research, Vol 16, Iss 2, pp149-167.

[3] Pritchard, M., Havitz, M. & Howard, D., 1999, ‘Analyzing the Commitment-Loyalty Link in Service Contexts’, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Vol 27, pp333-348.

[4] Mattila, A. S, 2006, ‘How affective commitment boosts guest loyalty (and promotes frequent-guest programs)’, Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, Vol 47, Iss 2, pp174 -181.

[5] Holmgren, L., 2006, ‘An Inside Look at Blockbuster, Inc.’, The University of Michigan.

[6] Satell, G., 2014, ‘A Look Back At Why Blockbuster Really Failed And Why It Didn’t Have To,’ Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/gregsatell/2014/09/05/a-look-back-at-why-blockbuster-really-failed-and-why-it-didnt-have-to/#34e8927b1d64 accessed 21 June 2020.

[7] Nash, K. S., 2009, ‘How Blockbuster Plans to Beat Netflix,’ CIO, https://www.cio.com/article/2430765/how-blockbuster-plans-to-beat-netflix.html accessed 21 June 2020

<a href="https://loyaltyrewardco.com/author/scott/" target="_self">Scott Harrison</a>

Scott Harrison

Based in New York, Scott Harrison is a Principal Consultant at Loyalty & Reward Co, the leading loyalty consulting firm. Loyalty & Reward Co design, implement, and operate loyalty programs for global brands. Scott is a customer experience and digital marketing specialist with extensive experience in loyalty, CX, member engagement and lifecycle marketing. He has worked with world leading brands including Australian Venue Co, McDonald’s, Schneider Electric, UEFA and Visa. Scott co-created the book Loyalty Programs: The Complete Guide, the most comprehensive book on loyalty program theory and practice available. He also regularly writes and presents on loyalty, gamification and the application of Web3 on engagement.

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