The price of loyalty

According to philosopher Josiah Royce, loyalty is “the heart of all the virtues, the central duty amongst all the duties…the basic moral principle from which all other principles can be derived.”

In business, brand loyalty ⁠is the holy grail. Maintaining the loyalty of your current customers is a lot easier than finding new ones, and rebuilding loyalty is a long hard road back. 

It’s the same in politics. Too often our elected members believe loyalty is something that can be purchased for a few shekels. But as the South Australian Liberal Government learnt last weekend, loyalty is a commodity that has to be won, not taken for granted.

Therefore, it’s fair to ask, is loyalty the “heart of all virtues” it once was? 

Since the corner shop closed, we’ve been well trained by the likes of Woolies and Coles and Aldi to shift our loyalties from one supermarket to another just to save 49 cents on toilet paper. They have created a self-fulfilling prophecy of disloyalty where “lowest price” is apparently the only determinant of customer satisfaction.

We’ve let our electronics retailers and high street clothing stores wither and die to grab an online bargain that we hope will work…or fit. We move houses, cities and countries. We swap partners like iPhones. We change jobs almost as often as our underwear. 

Until a few weeks ago I would have thought that we were a universe away from that era where explorers used to set off to the edge of the world in flimsy boats, based on a thought bubble from their king or queen; when astronauts were rocketed into space with only a vague promise of a return flight; or the time when people used to work in the same job for fifty years with their only reward, a gold watch, often followed by a heart attack. 

Would 38% of the male population of Australia voluntarily enlist to leap out of trenches with the certain expectation of machine gun death? That is what happened between 1914 and 1918, when 400,000 soldiers sailed off to WWI. In today’s terms that is the equivalent of more than 4.5 million Australian men prepared to give up their hair product and Diesel jeans and craft beer for a chance to get shot. Not likely, bro!

But as we’re seeing on our 24 hour news feeds, loyalty to country is a visceral instinct that cannot and should not be underestimated in any generation.

Here we are in March 2022 and Ukrainian men and women from all over the world are falling over themselves to return and fight for the motherland. Every male — even 60 year olds — must enlist regardless of their ability to recognise one end of a tank from another. Teenage girls, housewives and old men are learning how to fire AK-74 submachine guns, while Molotov cocktails are being manufactured in cellars alongside home brew vodka and pickled borsch. 

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is not in Hawaii, he’s dressed in Army greens and fronting his main military asset ⁠— people.   

Impressive as this nationalism seems, not much thought has been given to the capacity of a Russian enemy which is highly trained and well equipped to deliver death. 26 million Russians (including Ukranians) lost their lives in WWII because Stalin’s approach was a numbers game of cannon fodder attrition, and Putin is shaping up to be his protege.

But then body counts always come after the smoke clears.

For those of us who grew up in the Cold War 1960s, it seems unthinkable that East and West are again tumbling towards nuclear brinkmanship. Yet that is how perennially fragile peace is. Love of country runs deep and history shows that world wars have started with a lot less provocation than this…and that the dry firewood of nationalistic loyalty is always waiting for a match. 

 

As Mark Twain said soon after the US Civil War, “Loyalty to the country always. Loyalty to the government when it deserves it.”

 

The SA Liberal Government may have presumed that after shepherding its voters through a 24-month COVID “valley of death” it could expect some gratitude in the polling booths. Clearly it was badly wrong.

As a nation we are not noted for our love of big government. Yet when the pandemic started in Australia in February 2020, the freedom-loving Australian public bowed uncharacteristically to authority. 

There was a willingness to make sacrifices for the greater good unlike anything we had seen for decades. We stopped travelling. Businesses sent their workers home. Retailers closed their doors and reluctantly subsisted on government breadcrumbs. Sporting competitions were held on spectator-less grounds. We waved at our ageing parents through double glazing and learnt how to enjoy Friday night drinks on Zoom.

No-one liked it, but other than a sprinkling of lunatic anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists, we all tolerated it. Remarkably there was bipartisan backing for the decisive leadership of our Federal and State governments (and their celebrity health advisers) to lock us down.

But two years on, a weariness has set in.

 

For many South Australians who vaxxed once, then twice then boosted; who stayed home over Christmas instead of seeing the in-laws; who lost their hospitality businesses; had to find RATs that were more expensive than a six pack of beer; and were then buffeted by disruptive rounds of close contact isolation and quarantine, the shine of patient loyalty finally wore off at the weekend.

 

Voters want consistency and predictability. They also want to be listened to, rather than talked at. 

It is more than likely that this same frustration could boil over at the Federal ballot box in May. After 700 or so sleepless COVID nights, and baggy-eyed months of campaigning, the Prime Minister’s reward could well be a return to Opposition.

But history shows that we are no more fickle in our loyalty to governments, than our grandparents. 

Conservative Robert Menzies seemed to personify dignified trustworthiness when he was sworn in on 26 April 1939 as Australia’s 12th Prime Minister. A few months later the country was right behind him when he shared his  “melancholy duty” to commit us to World War II. But he stepped down in 1941 to make way for a united war cabinet, and we changed governments and leaders five times during the decade of greatest threat to our national security since Federation.

In the UK, Winston Churchill pulled off an “against all odds” British victory in World War II. He served as Conservative Prime Minister twice — from 1940 to 1945 — but just as the Nazis surrendered and the guns were silenced he was defeated in the 1945 general election by the Labour leader Clement Attlee. 

Despite an 83% approval rating and hero status as the PM who saved the Commonwealth, the election was a landslide to Labour. The public who trusted Churchill as a war leader didn’t believe he had the ticker to manage a reconstruction economy, and told him so.

Only one self-evident truth persists: since Brutus shafted Caesar, politics continues to be the very profession where disloyalty is almost a prerequisite.

So to brand loyalty. Boards, CEOs and marketing managers constantly strive for this intangible long-term feeling of trust, “a dedication by customers to purchasing the brand’s products and/or services repeatedly, regardless of deficiencies, a competitor’s actions, or changes in the environment,” according to Wikipedia.

 

After the tumult of the last two years, how is your brand shaping up? 

 

Is it time to invest in market research to determine your customer’s attitudes towards your products and services? Is it time to listen as well as talk? Have you undertaken an audit of the performance of your digital marketing, to gather valuable data about customer engagement? Have you reviewed your website and made a plan to upgrade? 

While most companies and organisations continued to invest in their marketing during COVID to ensure their brands were not forgotten, now is the time to commence a new marketing strategy based on what we’ve learned from the pandemic…because the only certainty is that there will be another wave sooner or later.

A McKinsey and Co report published last month, ‘Three keys to a resilient postpandemic recovery’ said “to build a better future, the emphasis must now shift from defensive measures and short-term goals to a sustainable, inclusive growth agenda.”

“At the moment, labour shortages, the rise of the digital economy, supply chain disruptions, inflation, and inequality are all addressed in isolation,” it says, calling for a less siloed, more holistic approach. 

“Strategies and structures have to be designed for flexibility and speed. We can assume disruption and accelerated change lie ahead. Nations and organisations must therefore approach issues with built-in adaptability and agility. Speed is important.”

Now those of us running small to medium enterprises can’t influence the macro business or political environment. But we can choose to put in place our learnings from the last 24 months.

EY’s Janet Balis penned a Harvard Business Review article, ‘10 Truths About Marketing After the Pandemic’ 12 months ago, when we all thought the pandemic was over. Her comments about the customer experience have never been more relevant. 

She points out businesses must get a better handle on their customer segmentation than they would have pre-pandemic. Research is showing that affordability, health and environmental sustainability are now the key drivers of customer choice. 

 

Given the extraordinary shift to digital communication during the pandemic “you are no longer competing with your competitors, you are competing with your customer’s best [digital] experience,” she warns.

 

It is also no longer good enough for customers to hope you have what they want. 

“Customers expect you to have exactly what they want,” she says. 

In a world where supply chains are constrained that might mean developing new local manufacturing relationships, which are better for the planet and the local economy anyway.

In all of this the customer experience must sit at the heart of every transaction and transparent and open relationships are essential.

Finally, the article points out “the old truth that your brand should stand behind great products must give way to the new truth: your brand should stand behind great values.”

“The pandemic truly challenged brand loyalty,” Balis writes. 

“The EY Future Consumer Index found that up to 61% of consumers, depending on the category, became willing to consider a white label product…or switch name brands. That dynamic coupled with growing consumer awareness and activism precipitated during the social unrest of 2020 should make brands very focused on the values they express.”

Marketing should no longer be the poor cousin of the finance, production and operations departments, wheeled in when sales need a boost. 

Marketing managers and the agencies they employ should be advising Boards and CEOs about how the world their customers inhabit is rapidly changing, and how, using a predominantly values based digital strategy, they can build loyalty and trust.

This might be more urgent than we think, as we move from what now looks like the comfort of post-pandemic to the chill of cold war.

 

 

Image: Crossing of the Dnieper Monument at the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War, Kiev, Ukraine.

 

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