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“Apostle Brands” Connect With Consumers’ Emotions, Driving Referrals and Reverence—But Some Are Also Among the Least Liked

Paris and sculptures from the Notre Dame Cathedral.JPGAccording to new research on America’s favorite brands from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), it may be no surprise that Apple, Amazon and Walmart top the list, while other perennially popular brands like Netflix, Costco, Samsung, Coca-Cola, Target, Jet Blue and Chick-Fil-A round out the Top 10. But what is it that keeps these brands close to consumers’ hearts (and wallets)? Study results suggest that the attribute uniting this diverse array of brands is the ability to forge an emotional connection with consumers. “They use technical and functional attributes to drive original choice and win by owning the heart and the mind,” says Michael J. Silverstein, a senior partner at BCG.

But the survey also showed that Walmart and Apple rank first and third among America’s least favorite brands—indicating that “brand love” can be volatile and turn quickly negative, a phenomenon that ought to keep even the most successful brands on their toes.

These findings parallel those in Rocket: Eight Lessons to Secure Infinite Growth, a new book written by Silverstein and BCG co-authors Dylan Bolder, Rune Jacobsen and Rohan Sajdeh, and published this month by McGraw-Hill. The book describes how the best brands achieve decades-long success and growth by putting aside conventional wisdom and focusing most of their resources on wooing a select few “apostle customers.” According to Silverstein, it’s emotional connection that transforms these brands into “apostle brands” that capture a disproportionate share of discretionary dollars.

“Apostle customers are only two percent of the customer base—but they drive the vast majority of sales and profits, because they love the brand, make it part of their lives, and recommend it fervently to family, friends and total strangers,” Silverstein said, in a news release.

According to proprietary BCG research reported in Rocket, one ultra-loyal customer—an apostle—can generate eight times his or her own consumption through word-of-mouth advocacy. And two percent of consumers directly contribute 20 percent of sales. They drive 80 percent of total volume via their recommendations. They deliver over 150 percent of profitability, buying products without a discount and without regard for seasonality.

“Apostle brands command premium prices and sell without promotion,” Silverstein said. BCG research shows that companies that succeed in creating apostle brands command higher valuations, higher margins and sustainable growth. “The goods that move off the shelf without markdown are also the strongest brands—they deliver high profit for manufacturers and retailers.”

The survey of 12,000 U.S. and 3,000 European consumers shows the power of apostle brands in action. Among the key findings:

  • Consumers asked to name their favorite brands cited Apple, ranked first with an index number of 100, followed by Amazon (95), Walmart (85), Netflix (68), Costco (55), Samsung (55), Coca-Cola (52), Target (44), Jet Blue (43) and Chick-Fil-A (38).
  • When consumers were asked what were the most important factors in their choices, emotional factors ranked high—in many cases higher than functional factors like price and quality. For those who picked Apple, “I feel smart, like I made a good decision” (41 percent) outranked quality (38 percent) or “is cutting edge” (33 percent). For those who picked Amazon, the same factor—”I feel smart, like I made a good decision” (42 percent) ranked just behind convenience (52 percent) but ahead of detailed product information (38 percent) and easy returns (30 percent). In the case of Walmart, “I feel smart, like I made a good decision” (75 percent) outweighed all other factors, even value for money (72 percent), convenience (47 percent) and low prices (44 percent).
  • Asked to name “a brand you like that could be the next big thing in its category,” consumers cited a range of up-and-comers, all of which go beyond products and services to provoke excitement and engagement. The list of top 25 up-and-coming brands included peer-to-peer vacation rental business Airbnb; China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba; online-only Ally Bank; high-end headphone maker Dre Beats; exercise monitor maker FitbitGoPro, the maker of personal video cameras for thrill-seekers; video streaming service Hulu; cosmetics maker NXT and virtual-reality headset maker Oculus Rift, as well as SnapChat, Tesla, Uber and “cult” airline Virgin America.
  • Apple, ranked first among the top 15 favorite brands, was also ranked third among the top 15 least favorite brands. Walmart, ranked third among the top 15 favorite brands, was ranked first of the top 15 least favorite brands. While one Apple admirer called the brand “a part of who I am,” other survey respondents called it “arrogant” and “secret and elitist”—comments that underscore the polarization.

This last finding, according to Silverstein, conveys an important lesson for leading brands: embrace angry customers, because brand scorn can turn to love.

“Brands are fragile and they fail. Sometimes brands that are loved are also least liked. No brand is stable—they’re either rising or declining,” Silverstein said. Companies that understand this “schismogenesis” can watch for it and avoid it. Toyota dealt with customer anger over massive recalls by embracing it head-on.

The National Football League should consider the same approach as it faces a storm over issues including domestic violence and head trauma, Silverstein said. “The new movie, Concussion, will highlight this issue,” he said. “More and more mothers are telling their sons, you can’t play football.”

Source: MarketWired; edited by Richard Carufel

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