'Iconic' Brands: The Illusion of Love And Why Size Really Does Matter


“What’s love got to do with it?”

Tina Turner

Are some brands different?

In response to my rant-y rant about people not caring that much about brands and the illusion of widespread and passionate loyalty, a good number of people have asked - sure, but what about ‘iconic’ brands?

You know the ones. Those that succeed in creating powerful, enduring emotional bonds between themselves and their customers.  That we describe as being like religions, cults or tribes.That manage to inspire ‘loyalty beyond reason’. That create legions of loyal followers and devoted fans.

Except they don't.  They're not that much different from any other brand.

There is no such thing as loyalty beyond reason

There’s a valuable piece of analysis from John Dawes of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, looking at brand loyalty in the UK sportswear market. He does a lovely job of dismantling some of the rhetoric that’s out there. 

His data source is from the TNS Superpanel, which comprises over 15,000 households. Participants record their purchases using in-home electronic terminals.

If we look at share of people’s sportswear requirements, we see that no brand receives ‘loyalty beyond reason’:

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So from the above we see that:

Buyers allocate roughly 60% of their category requirements to one brand over a year

Brands vary considerably in market share - Adidas at 33%, Umbro at 9%

But there is much less variation in loyalty - so while it is almost four times the size of Umbro, the gap in loyalty is less significant: Adidas captures 68% of requirements, and Umbro captures 50%

Clearly then loyalty is not the most significant discriminator between brands. Size is.

This same pattern of widely varying market shares and roughly equal loyalties is observable across categories. Take for example, Charles Graham’s analysis of six years’ of buyer data in the coffee category. Here we see that although over this period penetration and share values move in line, average purchase per buyer for any brand have remained roughly constant:

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Clearly, as Graham concludes “since large and small brands have roughly equal loyalties, then penetration must explain brand size”. 

And here’s the same pattern at work for bottled waters (the source here is UK-based panel data analysis from Dunnhumby that collate the Tesco Clubcard data):


Again, there is a wide variation in market shares. However, share of requirements is much the same from brand to brand. 

Even a well-known brand such as Evian does not garner loyalty beyond reason. In market share terms it is almost 10.5 times the size of Vittel. Yet the gap in loyalty is considerably narrower - its share of requirements is just 2.7 times that of Vittel.

(The exception is the Tesco brand. This may be because the data is from Tesco panel, which rewards buyers for buying its own brands).

It's worth noting that we can expect smaller brands to get slightly less loyalty than bigger brands. This the phenomenon Professor Ehrenberg termed the ‘double jeopardy effect’. As a brand increases its customer base we see some rise in loyalty. This is because growth in penetration comes from extending what Byron Sharp calls a brand's ‘mental and physical availability’, making it easier to buy for more people.

All brands share their customers with other brands

Looking at at how sportswear buyers spread their purchases across competing brands:

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Here we see that for example:

Adidas buyers allocated on average about 68% of their requirements  to Adidas, 14% to Nike, 8% to Reebok, 5% to Umbro.

Nike buyers on average allocated 63% to Nike, 18% to Adidas, 9% to Reebok, 6% to Umbro

In other words, brands share their customers with other brands, roughly in line with their market shares. 

Chasing loyalty is not the goal

These findings may make some uncomfortable, undermining the myth so many of us have subscribed to for so long. Some of us may even refuse to believe the data. But the dream that a brand can enjoy ‘loyalty beyond reason’ is just that. And it’s a dangerous dream because it encourages us to focus on the wrong thing.

That all brands share their customers with other brands in proportions reflecting their market share should tell us that chasing the creation of exclusive relationships is a futile and misguided endeavour.

That there is a much greater variance in brand size than brand loyalty should tell us plainly that marketing will doom itself to banging its head against a brick wall if it thinks it can significantly improve loyalty.

Small wonder then that the analysis of the IPA’s DataBank shows that campaigns which had increasing penetration as an objective had much greater business success than campaigns that had increasing loyalty as their objective.

Too many of us labour under the loyalty myth. Here for example, is how Saatchi’s defines ‘Lovemarks’:

“Lovemarks reach your heart as well as your mind, creating an intimate, emotional connection that you just can’t live without. Ever. Take a brand away and people will find a replacement. Take a Lovemark away and people will protest its absence. Lovemarks are a relationship, not a mere transaction. You don’t just buy Lovemarks, you embrace them passionately. That’s why you never want to let go. Put simply, Lovemarks inspire: Loyalty beyond reason.”

Yet actual buyer behaviour data shows that people CAN live without brands. That they easily find a replacement. That they can and do let go. And that loyalty beyond reason simply does not exist.

It is easy to get people to declare their love and passion for brands in focus groups. But we should treat such declarations with the same degree of caution as we treat anything said and claimed in research. Because at the end of the day what matters is people’s buying behaviour. Attitudes that do not manifest themselves in behaviours are just hot air. 

And if ‘love’ doesn’t actually manifest itself in action and commitment in the real world, what is its value?

The battle for scale

We need to get our heads round the fact that the real battle is not for loyalty but scale. And in that battle being mentally available - known, famous, salient, top-of mind - and physically available - findable, recognizable, and accessible - are marketing's key levers for success.

This is not to suggest that brands are weak. Just that they are powerful in a different way from how many of us have tended to assume. 

Mark Earls has warned us that we’ve allowed our anthropomorphism of brands to cloud how people really feel towards them and really use them. ‘Brand personality’ and ‘brand relationship’ are as Earls reminds us, just metaphors. But we have allowed the language of relationships - with its notions love and commitment - to run out of control. And I can’t help but wonder if our own need to feel significant fuels this tendency.

But a look at actual buyer behaviour shows that the power of a brand doesn’t work ‘vertically. It doesn’t work primarily to create deep and even exclusive relationships with buyers.

Rather, the power of a brand’s meaning, salience and relevance is that it works ‘horizontally’, to capture the imaginations of big, broad populations.

As Byron Sharp puts it “They won't think about you much and they won't love you – but you'll make lots of money.”

The role of creativity

Given that buyer data clearly shows that people are inherently polygamous in their buying behaviour, and that the same data clearly demonstrates that size, not loyalty is the biggest difference between brands, it’s evident that the role of creativity isn’t to build strong preference or to persuade people that our brand is the only one they need ever purchase. 

Rather, the role of creativity is to make a brand vivid, relevant and memorable amongst big, broad populations. The rest of the marketing mix’s role is to make the brand visible, findable and buyable for lots of people.

Thinking of communications as ‘creative publicity‘  - as Ehrenberg, Barnard, Kennedy and Bloom characterize it - “publicizing the brand memorably, without having to 'persuade' consumers that the brand is better than they thought before” - is a more accurate perspective on what we do. 

Some of us might be disappointed to learn that the effects of our efforts are not hordes of devoted and passionate fans, followers, and zealots.  It’s time we got over ourselves and stopped assuming that what we make is so significant. Brands aren’t that important. We’re not that powerful. And people are not that stupid.

This might be disappointing news, but as Ehrenberg, Barnard, Kennedy and Bloom have argued, this a perspective that should actually stimulate and liberate our creativity. For it recognizes that much of what we do is “making distinctive and memorable publicity for the brand out of next to nothing”.

In other words, what we do is magic.


Les Binet and Peter Field, Marketing in the Era of Accountability

John Dawes, ‘Brand loyalty in the UK sportswear market’, International Journal of Advertising Research, vol. 51, No. 4, 2009

Mark Earls, Welcome to the Creative Age: Bananas, Business, and the Death of Marketing

Andrew Ehrenberg 'Repetitive advertising and the consumer', Journal of Advertising Research, Vol. 40, No. 6, November/December 2000

Andrew Ehrenberg, ‘What Brand Loyalty Can Tell Us’, Admap, October 2004, Issue 454

Andrew Ehrenberg, Neil Barnard, Rachel Kennedy, Helen Bloom, ‘Brand Advertising As Creative Publicity’, Journal of Advertising Research: Vol. 42, No. 4, July/August 2002 

Charles Graham, ‘Is your brand’s share trying to tell you something?’ Market Leader: Quarter 1, 2010

McDonald and John Scriven, ‘Why marketing needs marketing science’, Admap, October 2006, Issue 476 

Byron Sharp, How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know

Byron Sharp and Kate Newstead, ‘Loyalty is not the Holy Grail’, Admap, September 2010

Jaywant Singh, Chris Hand, Hsin Chen, ‘Differentiation in a branded commodity category: Tapping into behavioural data’, Kingston University