Developing an emotional connection between a customer and a brand generates many positive outcomes; a willingness to pay more, stronger commitment, word of mouth promotion and loyalty.
Loyal members that have formed emotional connections with a brand will continue to purchase over a long period of time and across various product lines, and are naturally more resistant to discounts and promotions from competitors.
The research and examples
Academic research highlights the importance of developing emotional connections as part of an effective loyalty program.
Henderson et al (2011) argued that, among other things, loyalty program induced change to consumer behaviour typically results from conferring status to consumers (which generates favourable comparisons with others) and developing relationships (which results in more favourable treatment by consumers). This manifests into two important emotions which support the development of loyalty: feelings of exclusivity and belonging.
A loyalty program which provides members with a feeling of exclusivity and belonging stands to play a central role in members adopting the brand (sub consciously or otherwise) as an element of their own self-definition.
Tajfel (1978)  proposed Social Identity Theory, whereby a person’s sense of who they are is based on their membership of different groups. He determined that groups give individuals a sense of social identity and a sense of belonging to the social world. This can extend to membership of loyalty programs. Frequent flyer programs leverage the Social Identity Theory to great effect.
Söderlund (2019) ran an experiment to determine if labelling customers as ‘member’ versus ‘non-member’ in the context of a company’s loyalty program can influence the customers’ evaluations of the brand. He found that evoking member status resulted in a higher level of sense of belonging and higher customer satisfaction. He also confirmed that the customer association with being a member was directly linked to a sense of belonging and satisfaction.
Brands can build emotional connections via the development of communities. A study by Zheng et al (2015) found that social networking tools (such as Facebook Fan Pages) have enormous potential for enhancing brand loyalty by encouraging engagement behaviours amongst communities. Perceived benefits (value) are crucial in affecting user engagement behaviours, with members demonstrating they are more likely to repeat behaviours that lead to positive rewards and achievements.
Communities do not need to be online. Harley Davidson turned their business around in the 1980s by focusing on building a brand community of ardent consumers organised around the lifestyle, activities, and ethos of the brand.
This included the development of a company-community relationship strategy through the Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.) membership club, where community-building activities were treated not just as marketing expenses but as company-wide investments in the success of the business model.
McCall et al’s (2010) guiding principles for designing an effective program features the development of emotional engagement at the top of their list. ‘Loyalty is more than repeat purchases, and programs must evolve to foster a deeper emotional connection between the customer and firms’.
Another way for a brand to build emotional engagement with a member is surprise and delight. Berman (2005) reported significantly higher levels of loyalty from delighted versus satisfied customers. ‘Other potential positive consequences of delight include lower costs due to increased word-of-mouth promotion, lower selling and advertising costs, lower customer acquisition costs, higher revenues due to higher initial and repeat sales, and long-term strategic advantages due to increased brand equity and increased ability to withstand new entrants.’
|Naked Wines |
Naked Wines have built their brand around the delivery of unique and personalised experiences at scale. The central tenet of Naked Wines proposition is the Angel member. Angels help a network of smaller, talented winemakers to make wines by providing them with guaranteed sales via a distribution channel that delivers a reasonable margin.
Angels support the winemakers by depositing as little as $40 per month into their Naked Wines account towards their next order. The money can be spent on any wine whenever the Angel wants. In return, Angels save at least 25 per cent on each order. Naked Wines encourage their Angels to download their app, which automatically loads the member’s order history.
This makes it easy and engaging for Angels to rate and review the wines they’ve tasted and makes them feel part of an exclusive community. After submitting reviews, Angels often receive personal responses from each of the winemakers, thanking them for their feedback. On their birthday, members can receive an email from Naked Wines with a link to a video of one of their favourite winemakers singing ‘Happy birthday’.
Generally, this is accompanied by a free bottle of their most highly rated wine as a present. This personalised package works to generate emotional connections with the Naked Wines brand and the winemakers, further fostering loyalty and a willingness to continue to spend with them.
Structure a loyalty or member engagement program to boost a member’s self-esteem, including conferring desirable benefits on them and providing them with feelings of exclusivity and belonging. This approach can act to support the development of habitual engagement behaviour and a stronger emotional connections with your program and brand.
 Veloutsou, C., 2015, ‘Brand evaluation, satisfaction and trust as predictors of brand loyalty: the mediator-moderator effect of brand relationships’, Journal of Consumer Marketing, Vol 32, Iss 6, pp405-421.
 KPMG, 2019, ‘The Truth About Loyalty Report,’ https://assets.kpmg/content/dam/kpmg/xx/pdf/2019/11/customer-loyalty-report.pdf, accessed 12 June 2020.
 Tajfel, H. & Turner, J. C., 1978, ‘An Integrative Theory of Intergroup Conflict’, The social psychology of intergroup relations, pp33-47.
 Söderlund, M., 2019, ‘Can the label ‘member’ in a loyalty program context boost customer satisfaction?’, The International Review of Retail, Distribution and Consumer Research, Vol 29, Iss 3, pp340-35.
 Zheng, Xiabing & Cheung, Christy & Lee, Matthew & Liang, Liang, 2015), ‘Building brand loyalty through user engagement in online brand communities in social networking sites’, Information Technology & People, Vol 28, pp90-106.
 McCall, M., Voorhees, C., Calantone, R., 2010, ‘Building Customer Loyalty: Ten Principles for Designing an Effective. Customer Reward Program’, Cornell Hospitality Report, Vol 10, No 9.
 Berman, B., 2005, ‘How to delight your customers,’ California Management Review, Vol 48, Iss 1, pp129-151.