Are brand buyers loyal, habitual, or just accidental?

By Nigel Hollis

The other day, I came across this post on LinkedIn from Ethan Decker asking if buyers were brand loyal or brand habitual. The post references data from a survey of UK shoppers by Bain which finds that on average across a range of different product categories people buy different 3 brands. Ethan uses the data to assert that we are not brand loyal, we a brand habitual. I am not going to deny that habits have a huge amount of influence, particularly when it comes to low risk, repeated purchases.

But does that people do not have a preference for which brand they buy?

Patterns in behavior do not tell you why people buy

Simply studying the overall patterns in purchase behavior tells you nothing about why people buy. At best you can infer the reasons. According to the survey, on average people buy 6 brands of chocolate. Maybe they are seeking variety? Personal tech buyers bought less than two brands. Maybe they are hostage to a specific brand ecosystem? Or maybe the time frame used in the question meant that people bought chocolate way more times than tech and the rate of switching between brands would be similar if we looked across category purchase cycles not fixed time frames? We do not know. (No time frame is given in the original Bain report.)

Is it as simple as need, association, instinct?

The Bain report seems to assume that people are mindlessly responding to need and instinct (or what the Bain calls “a relatively deep subconscious level”). Maybe most people are when it comes to buying a KitKat (one of the examples given). But the habits and instincts that led to someone choosing KitKat over Snickers came from somewhere.

I think we need to admit that purchasing is the outcome of far more than just instinct, particularly for risky and more expensive purchases. Even when it comes to impulse products, people have active preferences. They have habits. They sometimes deliberate on brand choices. They are subject to the force of circumstance. Sometimes they just buy the wrong brand by accident. And whatever the reasons, at some point people buy a brand for the first time. This pivotal experience is going to determine whether they buy again, so perhaps we should focus more on why people buy for the first time, not just assume all purchase occasions are subject to the same influences.

In the following segment of the post, I am going to contrast two recent, low risk purchases that I made recently, and will try to highlight how and why I made the decisions I did. I believe it is instructive, but those pushed for time might wish to jump to the implications below.

Two recent purchases

The other day, I hiked over the hill to my local grocery store. In addition to supplies for the next couple of days I bought a sandwich and a drink to consume at the viewpoint on my way home. I was in a good mood, anticipating a pleasant interlude to enjoy my lunch and the view out across the valley. To that end, I was keen to finish shopping and get back out in the fresh air.

The sandwich choice was easy. It took a second to identify and select a John’s Hillbilly Steak and Cheese (no judgements please).

The choice of a drink took far longer, well over a minute as my eyes scanned the display case and I tried to make a decision. Kombucha? Not my thing. Maybe there is an acceptable form out there somewhere that does not taste of fermented socks, but why risk an unrewarding experience? Flavored water? Too insipid. Root beers? Ugh! I was conscious that I was taking a long time to make a relatively simple decision. In the end I chose Corina’s Switchy, a brand I had never tried before, but which claimed to be a delicious blend of lime and ginger juices with a splash of apple cider vinegar.

Unpacking my purchase decision

Let me try to decompose my purchasing decisions. How and why did I make the purchases I did?

The fast and frugal choice

When it came to choosing a sandwich, I made a fast and frugal decision by going with my default choice: I bought what I bought last time. On the occasions that I buy a sandwich from the Woodstock Farmer’s Market I choose John’s Hillbilly Steak and Cheese nine times out of ten. Why? Because remembered experience suggests I will enjoy that choice more than any of the alternatives. Choosing what I usually choose is a heuristic, a shortcut to a decision, based on prior experience.

Am I loyal to this sandwich? No. If I saw something I thought I might like better I would choose that instead. Experience and memory would then dictate whether I stuck with the new choice. To Ethan’s point, my purchasing is habitual. And that habit is founded on years of experience. Long before moving to Vermont, I had a liking for Philly cheesesteaks, which suggests I have a very stable preference for a meat cheese combo. The loss aversion bias might have played a role here too. I might not expect the same satisfaction if I buy something else.

The slow and deliberative choice

Fast and frugal decision making hit a wall when I moved on to my drink selection. There were a couple of factors that made my choice more difficult.

An unfamiliar context

The context of the store was familiar enough, I shop there at least twice a week, but I rarely buy soft drinks from there. I have not looked at the drinks case for months, and nearly forgot to make my choice, because established routine had led me to bypass that chiller cabinet. If I had been hiking a long distance on a hot day, I would probably have defaulted to choosing a Coca-Cola. Coke is a regular lunchtime choice when I am hiking in the Alps. Partly because Coke is ubiquitous, partly because of the energizing sugar boost, and partly because of childhood memories of buying Coke in the classic glass bottle on hot summer days. But it was borderline freezing outside, so refreshment was not primed as a choice criterion (admittedly this is an ex-post rationalization).

My most salient choice was not available

As I said before, a normal hiking choice might be Coca-Cola. And even though it was a cold day, I am pretty sure I thought about choosing a Coke. However, either it was not stocked, or I simply missed seeing it (which seems unlikely given its distinctive and familiar colors). Which is a salutary reminder that physical availability really does matter. And it makes me wonder just how often repertoire purchasing is forced upon people who otherwise have a default or preferred choice.

The available choices were unfamiliar

Never mind no Coca-Cola, there were few brands that I recognized at all. This was no surprise. The Woodstock Farmer’s Market is not your average grocery store. The product selection is carefully chosen to emphasize quality, local, and dare I say it, high margin brands.

Rejection comes before selection

My approach to making a decision was simple: scan the shelves for a cue that signaled a good choice. I started at the top, right of the display case. In the process I rejected several potential choice categories: kombucha, iced tea, and root beers. This is not an unusual choice strategy, and narrowed the field, but once I noticed a relevant cue and determined it might work for me, I stopped searching. As a result, I have no idea what choices were available in the bottom right of the display cabinet. It is not just availability that matters, it is being seen.

Distinctive package, different and meaningful product

Once I had rejected Kombucha and flavored water, Corina’s Switchy seemed a good bet: a modern take on the New England’s traditional Switchel, distinctively packaged, and a reasonable price compared to some of the other offerings.

The distinctive package drew my attention. Red, but not Coca-Cola red. A bird with a green lime in its beak. And the claim that the product was made with a splash of cider vinegar resonated. I’ve made Switchel myself, I know its back story. So, Corina’s Switchy was distinctive, different, and meaningful to me. And, as I noted before, it was a reasonable price compared to the other handcrafted but expensive choices (I suspect I was anchoring my price perceptions on the cost of my sandwich.)


If you have stuck with me so far, let me repay you with what I believe are some important implications that can be drawn from this exploration of purchasing behavior.

Remembered experience directs our future behavior

This is a remembered experience. I had no intention of writing about the event when I was making my decisions, so all I can do is try to reconstruct what I saw, what came to mind, and why I made the decisions I did. But then, these memories are the ones that will help shape my future purchasing behavior.

Back in 2005, Daniel Kahneman and Jason Riis wrote,

“It is a basic fact of the human condition that memories are what we get to keep from our experience, and the only perspective that we can adopt as we think about our lives is therefore that of the remembering self.”

To justify this statement, they cite research by Wirtz et al. (2003) which examined satisfaction with vacations in the moment and after the event, and conclude,

“It was the recalled enjoyment, however, and not the experienced enjoyment, that predicted people’s desire to repeat the vacation experience.”

(Given this fact, I find it odd that Kahneman and Riis then spend the rest of the paper outlining a way to measure what was experienced rather than remembered. And what do they recommend? A day after recall diary.)

Why does this matter? Because a lot of marketers seem uncomfortable with relying on people’s memories when trying to understand buying behavior. And yet, distorted, and inaccurate as they may be, memories are what will determine future buying behavior. If you do not value or understand people’s remembered experiences, you have little chance of influencing future behavior.

Marketing activities must work across unique experiences
This was a unique experience. It was my individual experience, mediated by my own history. Certain brands were available to me, others were not. And it was unique in terms of the environment. The weather was sunny but the temperature around freezing. Even if you could somehow arrange for every circumstance to be the same, the fact that I have now had this experience changes the way I will respond in future. It is an experience that will never be repeated.

Why does this matter? Because marketers need to influence people at scale. That means our activities must be effective across a huge range of individual experiences. Experiences into which we have little insight. Only online do we delude ourselves that we can personalize experiences at scale to change people’s purchasing behavior, despite the evidence that most purchases happen offline, that most online purchasing is influenced by offline marketing activities, and that the immediate influence of online activities is negligible. Marketers must focus on commonalities, not differences.

Purchase decisions are the result of collisions

Purchase decisions are the outcome of the collision of different influences, experiences, and motivations. I have tried to highlight the different factors that might have impacted my decision making when buying a sandwich and a soft drink. The major ones would be,

  • A desire to make decisions quickly.
  • A desire not to waste an enjoyable experience.
  • A desire not to waste money.
  • For the sandwich, the influence of habit based on repeated, positive experiences.
  • For the drink, the influence of physical availability, lack of familiarity, cues to direct my attention, and the use of peripheral experiences to help make a choice (I had never chosen Corina’s Switchy before, but related experience suggested I might like it).
  • The influence of price (which I suspect was anchored to more than just the cost of the other drinks).

To assume that need and instinct are all that drive purchase behavior is simplistic at best. Buyers are not always instinctive. They are not always habitual. Imagine if I was choosing something more complex like a car, home insurance, or a rain jacket. How many more factors would come into play? How much more conscious effort might I put into making the right choice? How much more might I fixate on price?

People buy a repertoire of brands for a reason

If nothing else, my experience should serve as a reminder that one of the reasons people buy a repertoire of brands is that their needs are not fixed. People buy different brands…

  • For different needs (mayonnaise bought as a condiment, a sandwich spread, or to clean paintbrushes).
  • For different occasions (clothing for a weekday, a night out, a wedding).
  • For different people (a shampoo for the spouse, kids, neighbors, grandparents).
  • Because they fancy a change (variety is the spice of life).
  • Because they saw an ad for something new, Amazon recommended it, or they saw it on the shelf (and they felt it worth checking it out).
  • Because they must buy the cheapest product available (rather than what they might like to buy).
  • Because they picked up a different brand by mistake. (A long time ago, we identified that one of the reasons for higher than normal cross-purchasing between Typhoo and Co-op tea was that both had red packaging.
  • Cued by the color, people accidentally switched from the brand they preferred.)
    Because the brand they were predisposed to choose was not available (or simply not seen).

Of course, people buy a (expletive) repertoire. The question is, what specific actions are you going to take to change or reinforce your brand’s role in the repertoire?

First time brand choices are different from repeated ones

Perhaps the most important takeaway from all this is to remember that a first-time purchase is a huge opportunity for any brand, but the dynamics are very different from those for a repeat category buyer.

The first-time buyer is unlikely to have fixed attitudes or beliefs. If a marketer has done their job right, a buyer may be predisposed to choose a specific brand, giving that brand a head start over its competition. If there is something about the brand that people think is going to be different and meaningful to them, then it will be a lot easier for them to choose that brand than another. They may be predisposed to check out several brands. Or, in the absence of any predisposition, as with my drink purchase, the decision is going to come down to the interaction of the immediate context, cues, related experiences, and price.

Once someone has made a purchase in a category, they will never go through the same experience again. Remembered experience is going to turn expectations into attitudes and beliefs, for good or ill. Sadly, despite my expectations, I found the taste of Corina’s Switchy too strong. I might choose it for another occasion, but not to go with a John’s Hillbilly Cheesesteak. The satisfaction of making a decision prevented me from anticipating how the two items might together. My loss.

In conclusion

Remembered experience is the experience that matters. If people have had a positive experience of your brand, they will likely want to repeat it with the right prompting. To activate that predisposition, keep your brand salient, meaningful, and available.

Getting more than your fair share of new category buyers is critical to growth. What experiences can you create at scale that will predispose them to choose your brand? Look for commonalities, not differences. Build expectations of meaning to attract buyers. Build expectations of difference to help justify the brand’s price point. Make sure your brand is as available as possible and easily noticed.

Finally, do not assume that just because people buy a repertoire of brands their purchasing is instinctual, habitual, or random. People make different decisions, for different reasons, in different contexts, and at different times. If you do not understand how and why people buy in your product category, your marketing is likely to be ineffective. You need to understand what will change people’s behavior in your brand’s favor.

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