What’s the impact to your bottom line when your customers switch loyalty to your competitor? What if you could understand why and be able to prevent it?

My car story

After 13 years and 180,000 miles my Toyota Celica convertible was starting to feel unreliable. I didn’t like driving it in the snow, it felt unsafe. The little things were starting to break down – I needed to carry pliers to turn the heat up and down. And I was getting nagged by one of my clients to get something upscale. It was time for a new car.

I’m not one to buy a new car every four years. My trigger for purchasing a new car has always been unreliability of the old car. The first car my husband and I bought was a Fiat 128. It was a red box with a stick shift that we both had to learn to drive. A fun ride, but the electrical system kept breaking down. Despite that we took it on our year-long cross country camping trip exploring the USA. Half-way up the hills of Colorado carrying a huge load of gear, the Fiat began to creep, moving slower and slower until we were afraid we’d be pushed off the winding roads by oncoming traffic. So we bought a new car in California.

Decision criteria

We had three criteria for the car we purchased: Reliability, big enough for our stuff, and cost. We looked in Consumer Reports, picked Toyota, and drove our new Corona station wagon stick shift back across the country. Ten years and two kids later when that car started breaking down we got a Toyota Tercel stick shift. When that too became unreliable I was ready for my “I’m in my 40s and want a sports car” automobile. So I got a Toyota Celica convertible stick shift. Toyota = reliability; for me there was no other real choice when it came to cars.

Now to be fair, before buying the Celica we did look at cars other than Toyotas – but only at Japanese high reliability cars. Reliability was the key. So it was okay to buy my husband’s Honda Accord and later his Acura because each was – if not a Toyota – reliable. There is nothing – nothing – I fear more than the chance I will be stranded somewhere with a breakdown. So as far as we were concerned – no matter what else we were looking for in cars – reliability trumped it all.

Although my husband might branch out to a Honda, I am a brand buyer. I don’t like to look at all the options and determine the best deal. (Although I’m the one who always does the bargaining.) I don’t collect coupons to save money. I don’t like to see all the possible new features to try out what might be fun. All those possibilities just overwhelm me, take up my time weighing decisions, and in the end mean very little financially as far as cost differential goes. So if I like a brand I stick to it.

Other brand experiences

My mother used Ajax, Kleenex, and Scott paper products so I used all those products. Even when I wanted to try some of the “softer” products I only considered those that came from my brand of choice. My mother also used Tide laundry detergent and so I used Tide – until I learned that any kind of scent bothered me. So when Wisk laundry detergent came out with a liquid and unscented product I bought Wisk for years. Cascade is my dishwasher soap. Ivory is my liquid dishwashing soap. Dove unscented is my bar soap. When I couldn’t find unscented Wisk any more I went back to Tide which now offered unscented liquid. See a pattern?

My choice

I now have to tell you, my current car is not a Toyota. So how did I end up with a BMW 325i convertible? Reliability is certainly not part of that brand and no one else in my family had a BMW. I decided to go upscale. And I still loved convertibles. I wanted something sporty – and it had to be a stick shift. And therein lay the problem. The stick shift ended up trumping brand loyalty and reliability. I couldn’t find them both. No matter what I looked at – and believe me I looked at it all – no one was making a real stick shift any more. There are no Toyotas (or in this case Lexus) or any Japanese car that made a real manual stick. Everyone had gone to the new technology – and I already knew that no matter what they say the “fake” sticks are not real sticks. My husband’s Acura had one of those. In the end it was silly to use; it didn’t feel like a stick so we just drove in automatic.

Why? I couldn’t slam it into place, I couldn’t feel the engine move forward, I couldn’t sense when the car needed the next gear, the car didn’t grip the road, I simply wasn’t driving. For me, it turns out, driving is an experience. But until I couldn’t get reliability combined with real driving I didn’t know how much it mattered.

What I didn’t know

Turns out every car I ever owned was fun to drive starting with the Fiat – it was fun to drive because of a stick and how that changes the driving experience. Driving with a stick is a smooth integration of person and vehicle, with a kick. Driving with a stick makes the car an extension of me and, to my family’s chagrin, my mood. Driving is supposed to be fun. But when my car breaks down it betrays our relationship; when my car breaks down it isn’t fun. So reliability became the espoused criteria for purchase. Turns out I had a latent need I didn’t even know about until I couldn’t find both in one car brand!

In the end the BMW 325i was the only choice that met the core fun criteria and all the other secondary criteria: convertible, 4 seats so I had a trunk for groceries, upscale. So I had to come to terms with not buying Toyota. It took two years to make that decision.

So what about reliability? I could only make peace with that need because of the four year 50,000 mile guarantee, and a personal commitment to trade in the car before the guarantee expires. This compromise allowed me to buy for my core value – fun to drive – and walk away from Toyota.

When I walked away from Tide – I was walking away from my mother’s experience not my own. Driven by my own criteria for unscented and my own belief that Wisk cleaned better I stayed with that brand for years – until it was too hard to get unscented. Both Toyota and Wisk built a relationship with me by matching to my core buying values – and lost the relationship when they couldn’t keep pace with those values.

Why you should care

Companies lose customers all the time because they don’t really understand the confluence of buying criteria and values associated with different types of consumers. So how should we think about brand and consumer “needs”? To try to characterize the target consumer we write personas. Marketing wants to get a feel for the lives of the customer to create messaging that speaks to these self-identities. We try to communicate brand with visuals of the targeted buyer having the desired “experience” of ownership. But how do we uncover the real “desired experience?” And how do we find the real personas of the people who actually buy?

Engineering wants function lists to guide design. But function that is central to the buying decision can’t be communicated as a list. How do we find that pattern of value-related function – not just the function needed to get the task done? Is there a single core function around which all other functions swing – fun driving or unscented paper goods? What would design look like if we designed to the core decision-making function associated with a persona? And how do we find out what that core buying function is?

Companies are looking for that deal breaker and maker function that the buyer doesn’t even know they have. Companies are looking for characterizations of the consumer associated with this core function.

What to do

My husband got very tired of dragging around behind me while I looked for a new car. “Decide already,” he said. Even the last decision was wrenching and I doubted that I’d really love the car the way I loved my Toyotas. If I didn’t know how all my decision-making values played out, how could I tell someone else? And I didn’t know until I wrote this article. Traditional requirements gathering and marketing research techniques can not uncover these unconscious values – asking me when I don’t know won’t get a reliable response!

But if you had been there – watching and listening, if you had been in the field with me, maybe you would have figured it out for me. And if you worked for Toyota, perhaps you’d have discovered a new persona to target with different core needs.

I’m hoping against all reasonableness that in four years Lexus or some other high reliability automaker will realize that there are some dinosaurs out there who want a seriously fun drive in a reliable car. But I fear that they will not. I’m hoping that the BMW will be reliable – but I don’t believe that either. In the end I’ll be faced again with the terrible task of deciding what to buy. Maybe I’ll consider the environment this time – if it can make an upscale car that is fun to drive. How will a zeitgeist change like environmental consciousness mix with the other core decision-making values?

If you really want to understand the evolution of the personas which make up your market you must be out there in the field understanding us while we are transforming ourselves into your future market. If not you can’t discover those latent values and behaviors that really affect our choices that we don’t even know ourselves.

I’ve been driving the BMW for a year now. But BMW hasn’t become my brand yet – why? Well there is more to brand loyalty than fulfilling the buying criteria. What does it really mean to create a relationship with the customer? After all, if you find us brand buyers – you don’t want us to switch after the purchase. Tune in next time and find out.