Loyalty does not need a brand

As much as we are made to believe that brand stories are out of the world, emotionally super lifting, exquisite sensory overloads or sheer creative brilliance at play, real storytelling happens on the ground. It is about our streets, our shops, our day-to-day interactions, our behaviours and emotions where stories are created and played out.

There is significant levels of online conversations, expert opinions, published thought pieces and well researched content that highlight the fact that brands are becoming ‘experiences’. The challenge with marketing experiences is two fold – they cannot be branded (a snub to brands) and they are highly contextual and personal (a snub to uniformity).

We exhibit loyalty towards our choices driven by our experiences. Many of our daily choices have nothing to do with brands but in those choices we display levels of loyalty and brand marketer would die for.

London is home to thousands of barber shops. By barber shops I don’t mean the fancy and premium salons but the hundreds of walk in ones. You can walk into any one of these at any time and get a quick haircut, a shave or both. This is the story of one of these barber shops.

I initially stumbled on this shop when I worked very near to the City of London. It was one of those mornings when I wanted a urgent haircut to take me out of my dishevelled and unkempt being for an urgent client meeting.

This barber shop saved me. It gave me a good haircut. It also bought my loyalty that has remained steadfast till now. I moved out of the city long ago. I still trudge half way across town to get my haircut at this shop before going to my place of work. I have been doing this now for the last 4 years.

So what have I learnt and observed from my continuous visits to this shop?

First of all, you do not need a brand name to inspire loyalty. This shop does not have a brand. It is simply called a Walk-in Barber service. It is far away from the likes of Vidal Sassoon and Toni & Guy. But people come back here and they do that all the time.

I see many repeat faces in my visits there and count them as loyalists like me.

The real facet of the loyalty and likeability of this shop was made visible through a tragic event. I sometimes used to see the owner. A short, podgy man who used to sit in the shop sometimes in the morning and sometimes in the afternoon.

But then for quite a few months I didn’t see him. So I asked the girl who was cutting my hair as to where he is.

The girl replied that the owner, tragically, had passed away from a sudden heart attack. It was a sad turn of events but the shop kept on functioning as it always did. The girls told me that other family members have taken charge.

Then I saw expressions of concern and sympathy from other loyal customers. There were questions about how it happened (majority knew the man by his name), expressions of condolences and sometimes offers of financial help (if needed).

I continue to visit the shop and will probably go again tomorrow (my hair has again reached a state of disarray that needs fixing). I am surrounded by the likes of Toni & Guy’s in 10-15 minutes walking distance but I will do the half way across the city trudge to go to my barber shop.

My story around by barber (and for the numerous others who I see regularly in that shop) is anchored on loyalty. This is loyalty for a level of service (good), an experience (quite basic), an output (brilliantly consistent) and value for money (prices haven’t changed much). This is loyalty for all brand-driven characteristics but in the absence of any brand name. don’t even remember the name of the shop now. I just know the street and the characteristic black door.

There are hundreds of such stories being played out everyday in different aspects of our lives.

In Netflix’s House of Cards, Frank Underwood is shown to be a loyal customer of Freddy’s BBQ Joint, before he becomes President and long after he becomes one. It is fictional but is reality. Frank does not hesitate to come down from his President high chair to enter a small shop with some tables and eat his favourite ribs. This is that kind of loyalty.


Have we ever given a thought that we are quite open about changing every Friday night’s hip eatery we want to check out but don’t want to change our local Chinese takeaway / delivery when we want to have a night-in?

Real loyalty feeds the soul. When we exhibit switching behaviour, we tend to feed our brain (which overtakes the heart and the soul). All the nice and fancy things that attract us are brain driven. Our hearts and souls crave uniformity, they look for experiences that provide a profound sense of peace and satisfaction and they keep on searching for those experiences again and again.

The above principles apply to our choices for things that have importance beyond the next meal, the next drink or the next dress. We seldom change our doctors, we do not change our children’s nannies unless we are absolutely forced to, we spend more time looking for the right insurance provider than we look while buying houses, we consult hundreds before we change our medications or those of our children’s and we research a helluva lot when we are looking for a new job or universities for our children.

Higher the importance of the choice, more involved are our hearts and souls. Lower the importance more are we at the mercy of our “money minds”.

For brands to win the loyalty game and to be able to tug deep into our hearts, there are essentially three pieces of advice:

  • Leave the glitz and gimmickry aside; show us your purpose and the problem that you are trying to solve – Loyalty requires a strong sense of being
  • Tell us very clearly why the experience with you will be better than anything else we have ever experienced – Loyalty demands strong choices backed by sound reasoning
  • Tell us why we should come back to you again and again – Loyalty requires repeat purchases

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