Business Musings: Brand Loyalty 1 (Branding/Discoverability)
I started this series on branding because of this phrase: brand loyalty. I have been getting frustrated with the advice coming from this year’s round of marketing gurus, all of them bent on harassing readers into buying a book.
It took me a while to put my arms around what was bothering me about that, besides the personal. I hate getting nagged. I’m sure you do as well.
I own many different businesses, and two of them are brick-and-mortar retail stores. We built the first of those very slowly, with an eye to repeat customers.
Repeat customers are more than just the people who like what we’re doing. Repeat customers are the bread-and-butter of any retail business.
Much as I hate to tell you this, folks, as indie writers, you’re in retail. You’re selling your books directly to the customer. You might use platforms like Amazon, Kobo, and D2D rather than sell off your website, but you’re still providing a product to a customer, just like the collectibles stores that Dean and I own are doing.
Dean and I have owned retail businesses in the past, before we knew each other and after, and we both learned the value of repeat customers one satisfied customer at a time. I vividly remember one couple who came to the frame shop and art gallery that I owned in the 1980s. They had my then-husband frame a small but delicate piece of art for them. (My ex was an artist when it came to framing; unfortunately, he left that business.) The couple liked the work so much that they decided to have us frame all of their art. They spent about $3000 per month, 1980s dollars, until their collection was framed. And whenever they bought new art (which was often), they framed it with us.
No one else spent as much, although others came close. After their first test piece. After they decided they liked us.
When Dean started Pop Culture Collectibles, his goal was to get repeat customers. (Mine was to get rid of the collectibles that we no longer wanted.) We live in a tourist town. A lot of people come here and destination-shop once a year at their favorite stores. I’m proud to say that Dean’s hard work paid off. A large number of folks make stopping at Pop Culture Collectibles (both stores) one of the goals of their trip. (They can get items online, but it’s not the same.)
Writers build brand loyalty as well, but until just recently, they had no idea they were doing so. As we discussed in both the brand image and brand identity blogs, writers in the past let the traditional publishers build the writer’s brand, and those publishers did a piss-poor job of it.
Publishers tried to make book buying all about them, and what they curated, forgetting—or never really realizing—that in publishing, customer loyalty is brand loyalty…to a particular writer.
I envisioned this particular blog series after I read Targoz’s Strategic Marketing’s Reading Pulse Survey (courtesy of Randy Ellison). Targoz surveyed over almost 3,000 people—readers and non-readers alike—about their reading and book buying habits. (Most studies target readers or heavy readers only). A lot of the information in the survey confirmed what I already assumed, but I hadn’t seen any statistics that backed up my assumptions.
The survey also found some data that was just the same as every survey of book buyers: The number one reason people buy a book is because the book was written by one of their favorite authors. When book buyers purchase a book, 60% of those buyers do so because the book was written by “a favorite author or an author [they] had read before.”
Study after study backs up that particular piece of data. I’ve cited other studies that have shown something similar in the past. One of those studies came from a now-outdated Romance Writers of America survey commissioned in 2014. (Outdated because much of the survey had to do with format and where books get purchased.) At that point, romance readers told Nielsen (who conducted the survey) that the most important factor in deciding which romance to buy was the story (at #1) and the author (at #2).
Doesn’t that 66% look familiar? It’s almost the same as the Bain & Company percentage referring to repeat customers. Huh. Weird. I wonder why (she types with great sarcasm).
It makes perfect sense, because what those readers are doing is acting like a rational consumer. Consumers all have loyalty to certain brands. We all have loyalties to certain brands. Coke or Pepsi? Ford or Toyota? Apple or Microsoft? Amazon or Everybody else?
Brand loyalty is the holy grail of marketing. Marketers believe that once a customer becomes loyal to a brand, that customer is hooked for life.
Not entirely true, of course. If the brand messes with its main product, then the customer gets peeved. I no longer buy “clean and pure” Ivory soap, because a decade or so ago, some idiot at the company had to justify their phony-baloney job by added scent to every bar of Ivory. I had used the soap because I’m allergic to scent. I don’t use the soap any more, and like any loyal customer who had to go elsewhere, I’m still peeved about it.
I’m sure you have similar stories about things you loved until someone “improved” them.
Brand loyalty exists partly because the brand provides something important that the consumer is looking for. The other reason that customers become brand loyal is that it makes their decision-making easy.
Behavioral psychologists and behavioral economists disagree ever so slightly on whether or not something called “choice overload” causes consumer fatigue/depression/anxiety, but the one thing they do agree on is this: When faced with a lot of choices, consumers often default to the choice that they’re familiar with.
We’ve all done it: we have five minutes in a bookstore at an airport or the book section of a grocery store, and we need a book right now. We start by looking for a writer/series we love. If we don’t find that, we search for a writer we like. If we can’t find that, then we try someone new. If you’re anything like me in that scenario, you’re silently cursing, because you don’t have time to find the right book. I often walk out when my five minutes is up with no new purchase at all—and I suspect I’m not alone in that.
Brand loyalty—name loyalty—is something that we writers desire, but it’s not something that we can simply will into being. And it certainly doesn’t come about by bribing your reader.
Customer loyalty can be bought. In fact, customer loyalty is all about “What have you done for me lately”? According to the Retention Science Blog,
Customer loyalty can be encouraged and improved by maintaining overall low prices and offering regular loyalty discounts, special offers or multi-buy deals. This will convince your regular customers that you are still the cheapest merchant on the market. In this way it will prevent them from purchasing their products elsewhere.
Customers are loyal to the price or the deals. Yes, they like the product or the store or the atmosphere, but they can live without all of that if the price is wrong for them.
Brand loyalty is earned. From the same blog,
Consumers who are loyal to a brand remain customers because they believe you offer a better service and higher quality than anyone else. This happens regardless of pricing or other financial reasons.
In fact, the blog points out, that brand-loyal consumers will often try other products marketed under the same brand—even if those products are more expensive than the average product on the market.
Think Apple. Apple’s most brand-loyal customers will buy all Apple products, even though they’re often the most expensive on the market. Why? It’s not just the products, although if the products went downhill, the loyal customers would eventually leave.
It’s what CNBC calls “the ecosystem.”
Apple integrates its goods and services, and its innovation into a well-designed mesh of stores, apps, and products that make it easy for the customer to move from one service to another. According to CNBC, the “ever-growing, sprawling ecosystem of software and services that allow you to do more with the products if you continue to invest in that ecosystem.”
Apple’s competitors, for the most part, don’t do provide a comfortable ecosystem. They’re trying to reverse engineer an ecosystem, while Apple had it from the start.
Think about this: the most popular companies in today’s business world tend to provide more than a good product at a great price. They provide service, ease of use, adventure, and a way to interact with that system. That’s why Amazon is so successful right now. They too have an ecosystem
What has that to do with writers? We don’t provide an ecosystem.
Or do we?
People come to us for stories, entertainment, a certain point of view. What they end up liking is our voice and the way we tell our stories. If we entertain them, they come back. If we provide their favorite entertainment, they wait for our next project, whatever that may be. At this stage, they might become an evangelist for our work, letting others know we exist. This is an organic thing, not something you can force, no matter how much you beg.
Then there are hardcore loyalists, who will buy everything we do. Or they might like one aspect of what we do so much they want all of that thing, whatever it is.
Sometimes, they might perceive your work as unique, even when it falls solidly within a genre or a series of archetypes.
I was listening to Joanna Penn’s podcast, The Creative Penn, on a break from this blog, and I came across this snippet from Dan Blank on episode 325 that perfectly illustrates what I mean. He said,
I don’t really like fantasy books, I don’t really like the whole magic and wizard thing, but I love Harry Potter. I’m reading Harry Potter to my six-year-old right now. Again, because Harry Potter to me is not about wizards. It’s about friendship, and loyalty, and how you use power, and choices you make in life and all that.
To him, the Harry Potter books are not fantasy novels. They’re something other, something greater than fantasy which is not something he normally reads. (The entire podcast episode is worth your time, especially if you are focused on building your business.)
He is not a consumer of fantasy novels. He is a reader of Harry Potter. And Harry Potter speaks to him.
Which brings us to one other aspect of brand loyalty for writers. Some writers, like me, write in multiple series, formats, and genres. We also write standalones. My most loyal readers like everything I do. Most of my readers segregate my work either by genre or series or length. (Some don’t read short fiction, for example; others don’t like horror; and some only prefer one of my series.)
There are layers of loyalty to my brand enmeshed in this. I can’t guarantee that “my” readers will buy everything I produce. But I know that some will buy everything in the Retrieval Artist series or my Kris Nelscott Smokey Dalton books or my Kristine Grayson novels. So I have separate newsletters for those to inform the readers of those what I’m doing.
The accepted wisdom is that if you write in only one series, then you will be more successful. And to some extent, that is absolutely true. If you hit on the right series, and if that series has certain factors that make it a recognizable brand.
Harry Potter himself is a recognizable brand. J.K. Rowling has also written mysteries that aren’t doing as well as the Potter books but which are still wildly successful by most metrics.
However, according to that 2014 Codex Survey, the author with the strongest brand loyalty is Lee Child. While his books do not sell as well as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series or even as well as John Grisham’s books, a stunning 70% of Child’s fans buy his next book. Compare that with Grisham’s fans, 41% of whom will buy his next book.
There’s a significant difference between Child’s books and Grisham’s books. Grisham writes many different kinds of books. He writes YA as well as legal thrillers. He writes standalones that are sometimes thrillers, and sometimes straight literary novels. He publishes short story collections. He’s written nonfiction at book length.
Lee Child has only written books in the same series about the same character. There’s a wide variation in the techniques that Child uses to tell these stories—some are first person; some are third. Some are multiview point; some are single viewpoint. Some are set in the present; some are set in the past. But they all focus on Reacher, and his response to whatever problem comes his way.
In other words, fans know what they’re going to get. They don’t have to study the book jacket or read the opening to find out if the book is in a genre that they like. Child minimizes the risk for the buyer by producing very similar products.
It’s very smart, and something he did by design. His nearly twenty years of experience in British television taught him how to market a product. It’s not fair to say he assembled Jack Reacher, but Child did give thought to building brand loyalty. As someone who worked in television, he knew how to build an audience, which is the first step toward building loyalty.
In a Forbes article by David Vinjamuri titled “The Strongest Brand in Publishing Is…”, Child explains how he thought about getting brand loyalty for his series. I’m not going to quote all of that here because I’d quote a large chunk of the article. So I’m only going to share what I consider to be the most important part of Child’s thinking.
He said that the main factor in building brand loyalty is consistency. (He’s right, as we discussed in some of the earlier branding pieces.) Here’s how he applied that concept to his own writing plans:
A series is better than a sequence of [unrelated] books in terms of building brand loyalty. There are two components of loyalty: one is the author and the second is the subject. If you like the author but you’re uncertain of the content of the next book, that’s an obstacle. It runs counter to the literary view of writing that values originality and growth. Jack Reacher is the same person in every book.
Child is right about subject matter being an obstacle to a fast purchase. I adore Stephen King, and would count him as one of my favorite writers, but I am not interested in the Dark Tower series. Yet King routinely outsells Child, based on the strength of his imagination and voice.
There’s also a danger to consistency as Child applies it here. I was a Jack Reacher fan for about twelve books, but after a while, I grew tired of the very thing that Child calls a virtue here—the fact that Reacher does not change from book to book. I have gone from preordering the next book to not reading the series any longer, because, quite frankly, as a reader, I have become bored.
Do I consider myself a standard reader? Not by any stretch. But I am a fairly standard consumer. I have brands that I like and that I don’t want to change (I’m looking at you, Ivory) and brands whose adventuresome spirit I love. I am an Apple user and I love their ecosystem. If they focused on only one product, I’d have moved on by now.
The same with Amazon. Because I live at the ass-end of nowhere, I’m excited to see if the Whole Foods purchase makes it easier for me to get certain kinds of groceries that are simply unavailable here. I trust the Amazon brand to deliver food to me unspoiled, no matter the distance, at a price that I can afford. If Amazon had stuck with books only, like it did twenty years ago, I would not spend as much money with them as I do.
Go back to the earlier brand posts. If you are the kind of writer who can write the same thing over and over again and not get bored, then you might be able to develop the kind of brand loyalty that Child is talking about.
I can’t. I don’t want to repeat myself. So even though I know what he did is very smart, it’s not something I can or will replicate. I have to plan my own brand work around that decision.
That said, I am much more interested in building brand loyalty than I am in building customer loyalty. I didn’t have the words for this until I started this series.
I don’t want people to buy my books because they’re discounted or because I keep offering better and better variations of a good deal. I want people to buy my books because they enjoy my books.
My slow-growing newsletter, which is double the size it was last year, gets almost no promotion from me. I want readers to sign up because they’re interested, not because I ran some promotion on Twitter.
I’m also aware that a large number of my readers will never sign up for a newsletter, never visit this website, never follow me on Twitter. But they will buy the next book in either a favorite series or in general.
These are the people I’m cultivating. And until 2017, I would have called them fans of my work. I think it’s more accurate to say they’re brand-loyal customers.
I appreciate them all. My motto is one reader at a time. And do my best to get them to come back to buy more.
How do I do that?
I write the best damn books I can. Everyone’s time is precious, including that of readers. They will stop reading an author who no longer entertains them. They will never read an author out of obligation (once they’ve left school, that is). They all have To Be Read piles that are very high. You want your novels to be one of the books that’s actually read, not on the TBR pile.
There’s a lot more to brand loyalty than I’ve dealt with here. This is only the first half of this blog post. The second half will come next week.
Patreon supporters, you’ll be able to read part two immediately. I finished both posts together.
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“Business Musings: Brand Loyalty 1,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / andrewgenn.