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How to Win Loyalty and Alienate People

"There's only one thing worse than being talked about, and that's not being talked about," said Oscar Wilde.

What Wilde knew was that to stand out means running the risk of offending people. Finding ways to polarise public opinion has long been a tool for celebrity -- look at Lord Sugar's anti-small business outburst the other day.

Some do it through controversy, others by being unique, opinionated, and unflinching. Either way, polarisation generates publicity, a loyal fan base and, ultimately, customers.

For as long as a brand retains its vitality, freshness and integrity, and as long as the number of people it attracts is sufficient, its future is secure.

At the heart of Apple's success is a loyal group of brand evangelists. Indeed, it appears twice in the top 10 of the 2009 Brand Keys loyalty leaders list, for the iPhone (Number 1), and Apple itself (Number 9).

Apple and other businesses with fiercely loyal customers have a clear, consistent, and uncompromising position. That means not everyone's a fan.

None of Brand Keys's top 10 loyal brands are "middle of the road". They may not be loved by all -- see WalMart (#5) and McDonald's (#16) -- but the people that like them, love them. As Jim Hightower, the Texas populist, once said, "The only things in the middle of the road are yellow stripes and dead armadillos."

In practice, many of the businesses I talk to, particularly in the retail and leisure industries, feel a need to be all things to all men.

The fear of alienating potential customers leaves them bland, meaningless and, in a recession, playing the value game just to survive.

Here are some of the key factors in developing a polarising proposition. Please feel free to add more:

  1. Create an identity: stand for something different.
  2. Work with others that share your passion.
  3. Never compromise: stick to your values.
  4. Invest time and energy in customers that share your values.
  5. Listen to your lovers, not your detractors.
  6. Be happy to alienate people -- if they don't care enough to love or hate you, they haven't properly understood you.
Does your proposition clearly stand for something? Does it create strong feelings, both for and against? If not, you're just another armadillo in the middle of the road.

(Image: procsilas, CC2.0)

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