The secret to unwavering brand loyalty (or “3 brands, 3 days, and a 3-year-old”)

When I was three, my family moved from Texas to California. The first thing I remember about the trip is my dad lifting me up to get me into our U-Haul truck. (It was unsettling sitting so high up; it felt like we could tip over.) I also remember getting to ride with our dog, Fred. I’d never been able to ride in a car with Fred before, so this U-Haul thing was pretty special.

My memories of the entire move consist mainly of a few vivid flashes and some oddly deep impressions (hotel room smell = heaven). I have one flash of driving in darkness, and being thrilled at the sudden appearance of twinkling lights in the distance.

What’s that?” I asked excitedly. “Phoenix,” my dad answered. I’d never heard that word before, but it sounded as magical as those lights made it appear. I can still hear him saying it.

The whole experience embedded itself in my psyche in a way little else in my life has.

I stayed in my first hotels on that trip—a Best Western and a Holiday Inn—and while I don’t remember the stays themselves, I know that was the beginning of my love affair with hotels, and with those brands in particular.

I couldn’t have put it into words then, but what impressed me was the sheer convenience and simplicity of the concept. Here was this room, and it contained everything you could possibly need for an overnight stay: a bathroom, a bed, a television, and those wonderful little bars of soap that were just my size (I still have the Best Western and Holiday Inn soaps from that trip). And the fact that the hotels were located exactly where we needed them to be was nothing short of miraculous to me.Photo of vintage motel soaps from Best Western and Holiday Inn, circa 1971.

I knew that whoever came up with the idea was the smartest person in the whole world, ever.

From then on, I noticed every hotel and motel I ever drove by. The word “vacation” registered in my brain as “HOTEL!” Walking into a hotel room and checking it out was the best part of any vacation. The rest was icing.

On subsequent trips, I discovered new favorite brands like Quality Inn and TraveLodge (Sleepy Bear!). But the rule was we had to stay at least once at either a Best Western or a Holiday Inn, or my trip was ruined.

Photo of vintage Holiday Inn hotel soaps.

Decades later, I read Hotels and Hotelier for fun. I take vacations to visit and photograph old roadside motels. And if Bath & Body Works comes up with a Mid-Priced Hotel Room-scented shower gel, I will revel in it.

That three-day journey is still steering my life. Two years ago, I finally realized my dream of moving to Phoenix.

Why Phoenix? Anytime someone asks, I relay the story about riding in a U-Haul truck late at night, and seeing city lights rise in the distance, glittering like magic fairy dust. They never get it. It’s like trying to explain why buttercream frosting is one of humanity’s greatest achievements—it just is.

Care to guess how I moved all my crap with me to Phoenix?

Image of vintage toy U-Haul truck


I share this story to illustrate how brands have the power to create unwavering, lifelong loyalty through a single, ordinary transaction. Promotions, social media, pay-per-click, SEO, gamification—none of it matters. Your brand won’t capture someone’s heart or become part of who they are via a marketing gimmick. Those things can only help you convince people to try your brand in the first place, or help with damage control when you screw up. It’s cheaper to not screw up.

Businesses have little to no control over how and when a customer interaction takes place. What’s important is making the experience a positive one, every time, for every customer.

You won’t ever know which of your ordinary transactions is changing someone else’s life. So you have to assume they all are, and act accordingly.

Executives and board members today seem to regard profits as secondary to clicks, likes, and Google rankings. So many of them seem to think if they have this information, they’ll have the secret formula for perpetual success.

I want to tell every marketer and company executive to go home, have a glass of wine, and recite the Serenity prayer. Then get up the next morning and vow to make every customer interaction go as it should. Focus on hiring people you can trust to represent your brand to your customers. Focus on creating a product or service that works exactly as it should, and stand behind it. And when you do screw up, own up to it and apologize. It works.

Take the money you’re now spending trying to convince people you’re the best, and spend it on actually being the best. When people need what you have to offer, they will come to you.

There’s your formula.

Lawri Williamson, Corporate Communications & Brand Management


The Best Western logo is a registered trademark of Best Western International, Inc. All rights reserved.
The Holiday Inn logo is a registered trademark of IHG. All rights reserved.
The U-Haul logo is a registered trademark of U-Haul International, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Why I love Häagen-Dazs (it’s not about the ice cream)

I’ve been a consumer a lot longer than I’ve worked in communications. But how I react to communications I receive as a consumer has remained constant. I’ve always evaluated them based on how I felt after reading one. Did it make me feel glad to do business with the company in question? Or did it make me instantly hate the company and vow never to patronize them again? (Most fall somewhere in the middle.)

As I previously posted, the horrible communications I received from beauty retailer Ulta killed my longstanding relationship with them. Although I regularly receive error-riddled and/or strategically unsound emails from businesses, Ulta’s were beyond bad, falling under the category of insulting.

Yesterday, I received a rare treat in my inbox: A really good CRM email. I love it when I get one of these, because my consumer side and my writer side both get to feel valued. I feel validated as a consumer and, at the same time, I also feel a little more hopeful that I won’t end up living underneath a freeway overpass due to the death of the English language.

The email came from Häagen-Dazs in response to a form I submitted through their website to express my image of Häagen-Dazs Tart Natural Frozen Yogurtsadness over the discontinuation of their Tart Natural Frozen Yogurt. (That stuff was sooooooooo good.)

An ideal response would have said that millions of other customers had written with the same complaint, and they were bringing back the product. That’s not what their email said, of course. But what it did say was just as good:

“Thank you for your email letting us know of your disappointment in being unable to find Häagen-Dazs® Frozen Yogurt at your local market. I realize how frustrating it can be when you can’t find your favorite dessert treats.

As you know, this particular product line has been discontinued. Each year, we evaluate our current flavors and products, adding some new ones while discontinuing those that aren’t selling as well. We listen closely to our consumers and if we hear from enough shoppers who share your disappointment, we will certainly consider bringing this product back into our line-up.

We appreciate your taking the time to contact our company to let us know of your flavor preference.”

With this one simple email, Häagen-Dazs just won a customer for life.

What did they do that is so amazing? For those not in the field, I’ll spell it out:

1. “Thank you for your email letting us know of your disappointment in being unable to find Häagen-Dazs® Frozen Yogurt at your local market.”

They thanked me. Always #1 in customer communications. Thank the customer for being your customer. They also acknowledged that they actually read my complaint and understood what it was about. I don’t know how many times I’ve sent a similar comment, only to receive an improper response like, “We’re delighted to know you like our product. Thanks for your business.” Um, no. I DID like your product, but you’re not making it anymore, and that means you don’t have my business.

2. “I realize how frustrating it can be when you can’t find your favorite dessert treats.”

They acknowledged my pain point: frustration. And the use of “I” here instead of “we” adds a personal element that lends believability to the statement. It’s easier for me to “suspend disbelief,” so to speak, and accept that this communication was written to me, by one person. Nice touch. (This stuff does not happen by accident. It’s this kind of attention to detail that you’re paying for when you hire a pro to write for you.)

3. “As you know, this particular product line has been discontinued. Each year, we evaluate our current flavors and products, adding some new ones while discontinuing those that aren’t selling as well.”

They explained why I can’t find the product anymore. I didn’t already know the product had been discontinued, and I thought that assumption was a little odd, but no biggie, because I know now. And they didn’t just tell me it was discontinued — they explained WHY it’s been discontinued. Sure, I could figure it out. But stating it outright leaves nothing to question, and they have just added transparency and honesty to the values I associate with their brand.

4. “We listen closely to our consumers and if we hear from enough shoppers who share your disappointment, we will certainly consider bringing this product back into our line-up.”

This statement lets me know that feedback like mine counts at Häagen-Dazs; that they keep track of it, rather than just tossing it. It also gave me a little hope that the product could come back.

photo of Bath & Body Works Mailbu Heat Shower GelI’ve had other favorite products discontinued, and the companies involved merely stated that it was gone, without any indication that they cared whether their customers wanted it back or not. Bath & Body Works is notorious for that. They will discontinue products without even informing store staff, so they simply disappear, never to return. Complain, and what you get in response is, “Sorry. Why don’t you try our new Roses & Dirt fragrance?” If I wanted to smell like a funeral home, I wouldn’t be complaining to you for taking away my Malibu Heat!

Nitpick: “Line-up” should be one word with no hyphen, but at this point, they get a free pass.

5. “We appreciate your taking the time to contact our company to let us know of your flavor preference.”

Once again, they thank me, and acknowledge the source of my discontent. They let me know that my feedback is welcome.

The whole email is loaded with understanding, acknowledgement and appreciation. And it’s nice and short. Packs a whole lot of punch with just a few well-written lines. Pretty close to perfect.


Photo of Häagen-Dazs Rum Raisin Ice CreamThe other Häagen-Dazs flavor I like is Rum Raisin. Make no mistake — if they had sent me an Ulta-style response, I’d give it up in an instant. But since they did the exact opposite, I want to share that this particular flavor is perfect on warm pumpkin pie.

New note to the English-speaking world

If you need to have something done quickly, you can say, “I’d rather have it done sooner than later,” or “I’d prefer it be done sooner rather than later.” But somewhere in that mix, you need the word “rather.”

To simply say, “I want it done sooner than later,” is kind of — how can I put this nicely? — wrong.