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In this century it’s a sure thing that what delights consumers today will be expected tomorrow. And if not tomorrow, very shortly after tomorrow. Remember the first time you saw a fob that remotely opened a car’s doors? Or the first time you saw a camera on a cellphone? It delighted you. Now you expect it. And more. Much more. You expect that fob to open the doors, but also open the trunk, turn on the engine, crank up the seat warmers, and check your Facebook page. Before you leave your house. Cameras on phones? Scorsese is editing his next movie on his iPhone. See what we mean? None of that seems all that farfetched, does it?

A few years ago our annual Brand Keys Customer Loyalty Engagement Index (CLEI) found customers were looking for “delight” from their brands. But that was then, and tomorrow has arrived. This year’s survey found that meeting customer expectations is the secret going forth for how brands can guarantee loyalty, engagement, and profits. Of course, the first step is actually knowing what customers expect.

Last month 32,000 consumers told us. They self-selected among 64 categories in which they are consumers and assessed 555 brands for which they are customers (top-20%) our via predictive and independently-validated metrics that fuse rational and emotional aspects of the categories. It uses a combination of psychology and higher-order statistical analyses, and has been used in B2B and B2C categories in 35 countries. It’s been proven to identify the real emotional engagement drivers for the consumers’ category-specific Ideal. The output allows us to determine where expectations for the drivers are high or low, and how well brands are seen by their own customers to meet those expectations.

Expectation levels vary by category – consumers do not, after all, buy computers the way they buy colas – and they’re at their highest levels in two decades – up nearly 30%. Brands have only grown on average by about 6%, so a really big gap between what consumers expect and what most brands ­– again, according to their own customers ­– are delivering. Categories more emotionally-driven are likely to have higher expectations that grow faster than rational categories, which end up having lower expectations and move more slowly. But whether expectations grow faster or slower, brands that better meet these expectations always do better in the marketplace than those that don’t. Really, always.

This year, the top-10 brands, best at meeting customer expectations and, thus, having the most loyal customers are:

  1. Apple (computers)
  2. Kindle (e-reader)
  3. Samsung (flat screen TVs)
  4. Amazon (e-retailer)
  5. Ritz-Carlton (luxury hotels)
  6. Dunkin’ Donuts (coffee and packaged coffee)
  7. Facebook/Twitter (social networks)
  8. Ford/Hyundai (automotive)
  9. NFL (major league sports)
  10. American Express/Discover (credit cards)

A download of complete listing of the 64 category-555 brand loyalty and engagement rankings can be found here.

Brands that better meet expectations for the values that drive engagement and loyalty are also brands better able to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Those brands can act as a surrogate for added-value and are rewarded, as we’ve said, with loyal and engaged customers who behave more positively toward the brand. Thus, better meeting expectations for the Category Ideal always correlates highly with positive behavior toward that brand, actual purchases and, axiomatically, sales. The difficult part, of course, is accurately measuring consumer expectations so you can plan for them. Most brands don’t do that very well.

Brands that do not accurately measure expectations and do not meet these consumers’ expectations eventually fade away. Such products and services turn into ‘category placeholders; known, of course, but not known for anything in particular. Maybe still on store shelves, but more “commodity” than “brand.” And when that happens, they become interchangeable. You just have to look at a number of FMCG or CPG categories to see that consumers don’t hold high expectations for products or services they can substitute for one another without a second thought.

It was discount retailer Sam Walton who noted, “High expectations are the key to everything.” According to this year’s Customer Loyalty Engagement Index, consumers couldn’t agree more. For brands, better meeting their customers’ category expectations turns out to be the key to loyalty, engagement, and real market success. And you can’t really expect more than that!

Connect with Robert on LinkedIn.

Find out more about what makes customer loyalty happen and how Brand Keys metrics is able to predict future consumer behavior: Visit our YouTube channel to learn more about Brand Keys methodology, applications and case studies.

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