Brand loyalty is a marketers’ Holy Grail. And so it always will be, writes this French academic. One of the reasons is that as long as they try to win consumers’ loyalties by restricting choices, marketers will only succeed in encouraging consumers to try and experiment with as many brands as possible. Paradoxically, loyalty can best be obtained by allowing consumers to make as many choices as they wish to make.

To say that brand loyalty is in decline today is, at the very least, an understatement. A common, unequivocal conclusion emerges from almost all research: Consumers are more versatile and less loyal than they ever have been. Studies on consumer satisfaction indexes have long demonstrated that, when contemplating their next purchase, satisfied consumers do not automatically buy the same brand of car or television set. Far from it, in fact.

Interestingly, consumer behavior theorists have coined new terms to describe this new situation. ‘Choice repertoire’ identifies the fact that a consumer can no longer be identified by a brand, but rather by a set of brands he or she will choose, with a specific probability, within the same product category . It does little to alleviate the marketers’ pain, whilst helplessly watching the decline of brand loyalty, to speak of ‘shared loyalties’ or ‘divided loyalties’, or even ‘multiple loyalties’.

There is no single answer to what is, in fact, a long-term trend ( Kapferer) , although it is too often claimed that the decline of brand loyalty started in the last ten or twenty years, a claim caused to be made by a lack of memory or by the habit that of believing that economic life changes every decade. Economists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and philosophers have all proposed alternative and complementary explanations. It is not our purpose to summarise them here ; any interested reader knows them all, more or less. What concerned professionnal journal or conference has not addressed this new situation?

Letting the words speak

In this article we would like to specifically contribute to an understanding of the phenomenon of declining brand loyalty through the rarely discussed perspective of semantics.

This work follows the pioneering works of R. Barthes, A. Baudrillard or, more recently, the philosopher A. Etchegoyen’s analysis of the same subject. Semanticists remind us that the words we use are not simply words; they refer to concepts and carry with them a number of underlying connotations, nuances of meaning and even history that it may be useful to examine. They may reveal not only the roots of the language we use, but also the roots of the phenomenon under scrutiny, in this case, the decline of brand loyalty.

Furthermore, it seems fruitful to add to this exploratory process an international vision. Multicultural analyses are relevant on several scores. Firstly, of course, to avoid ethnocentric bias but also because the decline in brand loyalty is a global phenomenon. But the main reason may lie elsewhere. By making cross-language comparisons, we may discover, in the etymology of the language, differences in the concept of brand loyalty itself. What might the nuances in the roots of words themselves reveal to us about the phenomenon?

We have limited this endeavor to three languages, English, German and French. The writer, (a proud European himself!), speaks these three languages. His mother tongue, French, belongs to the group of Latin languages that include Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Rumanian. This inevitably widens the perspective of this analysis to include the Americas, Brazil and beyond. As such, our scope here goes far beyond three European countries. However, in our search to understand the roots of brand loyalty and its decline, they serve to provide the basis of our cross-cultural approach.

Striking differences between cultures

Any studied comparison of the languages we use across borders will reveal subtle differences that may have previously gone unnoticed. Occasionally, these may be simple oddities, often imperilling the less experienced translator. We learn that caveats become important.

For example, the English words ‘brand loyalty’ are typically translated as ‘Markentreue’ in German and ‘fidelité à la marque’ in French, or ‘marca fidelidade’ in Brazilian. These differences are interesting because an obvious equivalent counterpart of ‘loyalty’ does exist, for instance, in French. And that equivalent, the French word ‘loyal’, is otherwise in common usage. There are similar counterparts in the Latin sister languages. Reciprocally, the English language uses the word ‘loyalty’ when it might just as well use ‘fidelity’, a direct translation of the French ‘fidelité’.

Why are these differences worthy of consideration? Because the roots of these words are not exactly the same.

Etymologists will say that at the root of the word ‘loyalty’ one finds the Latin word for law, which becomes ‘loi’ in French or ‘legal’in English. ‘Fidelité’ comes from the latin ‘fides’, from which the word ‘faith’ is derived. Finally, the German ‘Vertrauen’ is based on the verb ‘trauen’, which means ‘to strongly believe with a religious connotation’. We are not far here from the English word ‘trust’.

Even if the idea of law disguises itself within the simple English word ‘loyalty’, it pervades its expression and its connotations. Loyalty is always in the shadow of some law, written or unwritten. In his famous book, Exit, Voice and Loyalty, A. Hirschman associates loyalty with those who stay mute in support of their organisations or parties. Lack of loyalty has a strongly negative evaluation. Disloyalty is unfair, verging even on the immoral. It goes against both the natural and the social order. Hence the fact that we praise loyalty and criticise those who demonstrate a lack of loyalty. They are a source of social disorder. They are seen almost as traitors. One cannot rely on them. They are, in one sense or another, law-breakers.

But what law and what convention? Reciprocity, perhaps?

Interestingly, looking at synonyms of ‘loyal’ one finds ‘devoted’, which derives from the Latin ‘votum’ or ‘a vote’. Now one can begin to understand imperious statements such as, ‘You’ll have to decide where your loyalties lie.’ One has a difficult choice. Do you obey or conform to one set of prescriptions or laws, or will you choose another? A difficult task in an era where most people have multiple identities, at work, at leisure, or within their families. ( A. Maalouf ).

Still exploring common usage, one speaks of a ‘loyal person’, almost by definition, as a friend. Everyone knows how rare truly loyal friends are. In terms of human relationships, difficulties, crisis and misfortune separate the wheat from the chaff. Only a very few loyal friendships survive a lifetime. If we describe a friend as ‘loyal’, it signals a relationship which will resist the deleterious passage of time. So what drives loyalty? And can it survive all trials and tribulations?

Common usage differentiates the ‘truly loyal friends’ from ‘pseudo’ or ‘affected’ relationships.

These are those whose behavior may change in the long term or be based merely on a partisan, calculated self-interest. Marketing theorists speak of ‘affective loyalty’ to refer to a loyalty based on an authentic affective engagement, as if the word ‘loyalty’ alone did not secure this dimension any more.

They may well be right. Most so called loyalty programs or loyalty cards are, de-facto, based on consumers’ self interest. They follow Skinner’s recommendations to change behavior, i.e. reinforce repeat behavior by contingent rewards. They are, in fact, retention programs. You might actually describe loyalty cards as frequency cards. Marketers hope that, through time, repeated behaviors will turn into ingrained habits. Later, these habits will be psychologically internalised to produce a positive attitude to a brand, something akin to a genuine liking or preference. It is a fact that attitudes will often follow behaviour, either in order to re-create psychological balance or congruence (Festinger; Osgood) or just because behaviour is sometimes more flexible than attitudes (A. Ehrenberg). This internalisation process will only take place, however, if the behavior is not attributed to the reinforcement program itself (Brehm).

Looking now at the Latin languages and their common culture, one finds the word ‘fidelité’ instead of ‘loyalty’, or ‘loyauté’ in French. The origin of ‘fidelité’ is the Latin word ‘fides’, meaning ‘faith’. Those who attend church regularly or actively espouse a certain religion are called ‘fidèles’, or in English, ‘the faithful’. So, in this original religious context, to be ‘infidèle’ denotes a loss of faith. Of course, the Muslims termed those who fought against them during the crusades the infidels, meaning that they had betrayed the true faith. And this stems from the fact that all three religions, Judaïsm, Christianity and Islam are based on the same Holy Book. Each one claimed to be the most legitimate, the most accurate, and the closest to the Truth. This last aspect of the word ‘fidelty’ remains in modern language when we speak of ‘high-fidelity’ to refer to a totally faithful reproduction. Brands sometimes like to think of themselves as religions. These are called cult brands (Holt) and organise their community of clients as a congregation, with a holy land or place, churches, rituals, etc. It has to be said that few of these brands actually evoke religious fervor in their subscribers.

We turn now to marriage, a unique and sacred bond between two human beings. During the ceremony, in which they celebrate their eternal love, husband and wife promise to be ‘faithful’ to each other, not to be ‘loyal’ to each other . One also speaks of a spouse’s ‘fidelity’, not of ‘spouse loyalty’. Obviously, love seems to require more then mere loyalty. It finds proper expression, however, in a word like ‘fidélité’. This is why there is also a clear incongruity in the commercial willingness to create ‘fidélité’ through plans, programs or cards. Does one buy ‘fidélité’? A strict parallel can be made with love. One can buy love or make love, but is that actually love? Perhaps the words of the famous Beatles’ song, ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, say all there is to be said on this. ‘Fidelité programs’ try to buy love when instead brands should be devoting their energy to earning consumers’ love, and, in the first place, by showing them love. This is the message of K.Roberts who coined the word ‘Lovemarks’.

One understands why the ‘infidelité’ of a spouse or of a husband is so disruptive. As A. Etchegoyen remarked, it is a violation of two sacred things: love itself, (the faith one has in the partner being broken), and the code of conduct stated in the marriage contract and on which the whole of society is based. So, even if love has gone, one owes ‘fidelité’ to the partner, either through respect for that person or through the social mores involved. This idea evokes another concommitant word, also derived from ‘fides’, the far less sentimental, ‘feudal’. The peasants had to be ‘fidèle’ to the master, exchanging their total submission for his total protection against all surrounding threats and dangers. Feudalism was an efficient social contract that provided the basic organisation of society within Europe for nearly a thousand years.

The German word for brand loyalty is ‘Markentrauen’. It is based on the verb ‘trauen’, which means to believe, and carries with it an almost religious sense. Once again, we are close to ‘faith’ here, or ‘trust’, with the accompanying English word ‘true’. The feeling of total trust in another person creates a unique bond. But ‘fides’ also relates to a common faith. It is mutual and denotes shared ideals and values. This is the basis of affinity — a reliance upon the other, a confidence, but one based on common values.

What should brands expect from consumers? And vice versa

The analysis above demonstrates how differences between words shared between languages indicate not only subtleties of expression but also differences in the implications of the concepts they encapsulate. In whichever of the cultures we examined, the term brand loyalty refers to a unique type of relationship. It is, at the very least, reciprocal and, at the extreme, exclusive. The word ‘fidelité’, as applied to the notion of spouse or husband or marriage, suggested the total exclusivity demanded from a long-lasting relationship . This is at odds with the evolution of modern society. Men and women commonly divorce and remarry many times in their life. They have successive ‘fidélités’. Similarly, in many countries there is now a greater tolerance of an earlier taboo, conjugal infidelity. So long as it is short, not repetitive and, (within many cultures), preferably a failing on the part of the male.

In this light, it is clearly unreasonable of brands to demand exclusive long-term relationships. Firstly, our society is more fluid, more mobile, more fragmented and we seek multiple relationships in place of the confines of the past. In the development of the economic sphere, continuing growth and deregulation create wider and wider choice. Monopoly has become an anathaema. Secondly, it is logically impossible to achieve or even expect brand loyalty when it is not reciprocal. After all, it takes two to tango. Brands will try to seduce as many clients as possible whilst, at the same time, expect either total faithfulness or abstinence from those they identify as ‘their’ consumers.Their only solution is to make each client believe that he or she is utterly unique, in the embrace of a one-toone relationship and unassailably committed, either through either mutual adoration or the strictures of an unseen chastity belt. All this goes much further than the classic Customer Relationship Management programs. Data bases are useful only as tools for acquiring and memorising all the information needed as a prelude to any seduction or even intercourse with the object of devotion. We avoid here, of course, such distasteful terms such as client or consumer.

So, is there another possibility aside from the stormy and frustrating marriage already referred to? There is friendship, a much more realistic relationship in the circumstances. We need loyal friends who appreciate us as we are. We can develop long-term relationships on this basis, still based on our mutual knowledge and values. The same holds true for brands and consumers or clients. However, unlike marriage, friendship demands no exclusivity. In fact, a person who demands a single and exclusive friendship of another would be seen as deviant. Friendship is always open to others, as long as they largely share the same views, ideals, and behaviours. As a result, brands go too far when they expect to be the one and only supplier of their partners’ needs. The objective is both unattainable and unfair. Certainly one has levels of friendship, and there will always be an inner circle of intimates. But real friendship is to take consumers as they are, free to meet others and make discoveries.

The central contradiction of marketing

As we write these words, we measure the distance between a couple of others — corporations and consumers (or clients). On the one hand, it is a managerial truth that gaining a new client is so costly that companies do better to grow their beyond their existing clients by selling them more. This is why the modern key performance indicators, ( KPI’s ), have moved from market share to share of ‘wallet’ or share of requirements. The brand now aims at maximizing not only its market share, the percentage of people buying that brand even if they buy other brands too, but by calculating its share of all the purchases of each single purchaser. In doing so, it acts as a reducer of freedom. To revisit the parallels already drawn with relationships or marriage, such desire for exclusivity from the brand is akin to a straight-jacket, under which no real partnership could flourish. It is bound to fail sooner or later. This is why companies prefer tactics of choice reduction.

There is a dramatic gap between the latest academic definitions of marketing ( Kotler) that stress the soft notions of ‘a balanced exchange relationship between two parties for mutual profit’ and the hard mantra of modern marketing strategy which aims at reducing people’s choice. What is the ideal for any company? To suppress competition, to dominate markets, to gain exclusive access, to create barriers to entry, to discourage emerging alternatives. Microsoft is an archetypal example, a company whose success is based on excellent software, for sure, but mainly achieved through their total saturation of the market. Can one create love and friendship by limiting freedom? Can this even create loyalty? It has to be admitted that in this case it has succeeded in both retaining clients and creating one of the richest companies in the world. It is noticeable that, without the intervention of the regulatory authorities, aiming to maintain at least a minimum of competition in the market, corporate willingness to dominate would have no counterweight. Corporations have not yet realized enough that true loyalty or fidélité or markentrauen can only be assessed when the client is in the position to choose. Paradoxically, it is the power of such supra-market regulating authorities which may eventually lead to some brands experiencing the genuine loyalty they so hope to establish today – by maintaining enough consumer freedom, real freedom.


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