Understanding Consumers’ Love for Travel Brands

TRAVEL WEEKLY | September 19, 2016

We all know a family who takes a Disney vacation year after year despite a world of travel choices. Or the retired couple planning to embark on their 12th Celebrity Cruise rather than plunging into a new experience.

What drives this type of loyalty in people? The simple answer is love. More specifically, brand love. The same love that brings two people together also connects consumers with the brands they choose. By reaching consumers on a deep, emotional level, travel brands can provoke what some would classify as obsessive behavior, the power of love.

Our research at Coherency shows that while many rational factors, such as cost and location, strongly influence travel decisions, consumers are also driven by emotional brand connections. Having the capacity to understand what drives love among travelers can help you harness and increase this connection, with powerful implications.

In fact, our findings have validated that greater love means greater engagement with a brand, not only in the form of bookings but also engaging with the brand on social media, referring the product or experience to a friend and other forms of brand ambassadorship.

New quantitative, emotion-based research methodologies are enabling marketers to capture statistically valid data that demonstrates how emotions influence consumer behavior toward a particular brand. However, in order to take advantage, it's important for travel brands to understand how consumer emotions work.

Human-relationship science lessons

Human-relationship science principles posit that there are three key components of love that play a role in healthy human relationships: chemistry, compatibility and needs fulfillment. The same applies to relationships between consumers and brands.

Chemistry is that inexplicable excitement when the heart takes over the mind, generating a sense of exhilaration often associated with what may be considered irrational behavior or desire. Luxury brands, including those in the travel sector, benefit from very strong chemistry, which often inspires consumer price insensitivity.

The compatibility component is the baseline requirement for a lasting relationship -- and brand loyalty -- and requires that the consumer and brand share common values and principles. Compatibility is the strongest emotional driver for consumers' travel brand choices, which helps to explain why the aforementioned family is so loyal to Disney. The Disney brand is family-focused and devoted to delivering fun, quality time spent as a unit, which is likely to align with most families' values.

Needs fulfillment takes place at both a rational and emotional level. For example, someone might rationally choose to stay at a Hilton hotel because of its proximity to specific points of interest, fulfilling the need to stay somewhere that's convenient. On an emotional level, however, one might select the nearby Four Seasons because it provides luxury accommodations and carries status with friends or other business professionals.

These key emotional components that influence who, what and how we love somebody or something occur at a subconscious level. They trigger instantaneous, automatic gut reactions and behaviors toward everything in the world around us, including the products and brands we love.

These responses are typically followed by a mindful, rationalization process that aims to justify our instinctual behavior. Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman speaks to this in his 2003 book, "How Customers Think: Essential Insights Into the Mind of the Market," when he shares that 95% of purchasing decisions occur in our subconscious minds. Thus, emotions often outweigh reason.

Why does this matter to travel and hospitality marketers? According to marketing scientists, over time consumers build emotional attachments to a brand that can turn into "emotional shortcuts" that end up streamlining their purchasing decisions, such as when you automatically purchase a flight on Virgin America despite the fact that the airline does not fly directly to your destination when others do. Reaching that level of consumer response is the ultimate success.

Matchmaking principles

How can travel and hospitality brand marketers tap into and understand what happens in the consumer's subconscious if people are unable to fully understand their own emotions? And how do marketers access a person's emotions before they are influenced by the rationalization process?

The answer lies in modern-day matchmaking principles that can be applied to help measure and strengthen the love between consumers and brands. This includes:

Compatibility-matching algorithms derived from human-relationship science are responsible for the huge success of matchmaking websites such as eHarmony, a platform currently responsible for 5% of all marriages in the U.S. (with lower divorce rates than the national average).

Compatibility-matching algorithms can do the same for travel brands by measuring how consumers feel toward a specific brand and pinpointing which brand attributes are most likely to increase the target consumer's love for that brand. It's extremely compelling and, as I'll explain shortly, has been proven to deliver huge benefits.

Interactive online survey tools are another technological component utilized to help understand the emotional connection consumers have with brands. By designing surveys in highly visual and interactive formats that naturally engage participants, researchers are better able to tease out information about consumers' emotional relationships with brands. The simplicity and interactivity of these tools enable researchers to measure the initial emotional gut reaction with little interference from the rationalization process that typically follows.

As is common in most industries, the reach of the internet is also key to enabling widespread emotional research. This is especially important to travel and hospitality brands desiring to understand global consumer perceptions. With the internet providing access to a qualified pool of study participants that can be broad, localized or niche, these interactive tools and algorithms also enable marketers to measure and understand how consumers' emotions differ geographically and culturally.

The emotional intelligence provided by these combined technologies is exceptional. Previously, the ability to measure emotional brand connections reliably on a large scale was no easy feat. Quantitative survey approaches, traditionally relying on a standard five-point scale, capture rational, not emotional, responses. On the other hand, qualitative research tools, such as focus groups, enable marketers to gain insights into consumers' emotions, but they do not use adequate sample sizes to collect data that qualifies as statistically valid.

Brand love equals success

Perhaps most exciting about new emotion-based research methodologies is the observation that insights provided by emotional data actually predict consumer actions, such as the willingness to pay a premium for a product, engage with a brand on social media, become more receptive to ads and see greater success in line/brand extensions, a la Disney. In fact, our own large-scale study conducted across industries with more than 300 brands and 6,000 respondents confirms how brand love correlates with such consumer behaviors.

With regard to the travel industry, our research shows that the concept of compatibility is a key emotional driver for travel selections; travelers choose brands that reflect how they see themselves and that mirror their core values.

Among the 316 brands tested across 18 types of industries, we learned that brand love in the travel category can be extremely high or low, depending on the sector. Not surprisingly, brands such as Disney and Celebrity Cruises ranked in the top 10 most loved brands across all surveyed categories. On the other hand, many airline and car-rental brands were among the least loved.

Your brand can feel the love, too.

Now that reliably measuring emotional brand connections on a quantitative basis is no longer elusive, travel marketers can obtain powerful information to help their brands become the next Disney or Celebrity Cruises. Even brands in categories challenged to hit the top 10 can increase consumer love for their brands. Here are some key steps every marketer should take to grow consumer love for their brand:

Understand the drivers of love for your category and brand. While we know compatibility is influential in the travel sector overall, what authentic attributes will make consumers feel most compatible with your brand in particular? Do consumers exhibit feelings of chemistry or seek specific emotional benefits from your brand? If so, how can you deliver on that?

Identify what is most important to your target consumer. You will realize greater success if you align your brand emotionally with your most important consumers. A brand cannot be everything to everyone, so, for example, determine whether your hotel will connect most with a consumer focused on family travel or guests traveling for business who want to feel pampered the moment they walk through the door. Or will your car-rental company attract the right consumer base with a brand that stands for safety or one that fulfills the emotional need of wealthy consumers to be seen in a car that displays their status? Understanding the emotional segmentation of your target market will help you optimize your marketing efforts.

Finally, identify the drivers of love not only for your brand but also for your top competitors. Understanding your position in the context of competitors helps you find the "white space" that both differentiates your brand and builds deeper emotional connections with your target consumers.

Addressing these key steps will enable travel industry marketers to measure, nurture and grow consumer love for their brands, while reaping the significant benefits in the process.

Laura Beavin, a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, is a senior research specialist at Coherency, a marketing insights and strategy agency that provides a suite of quantitative and qualitative research tools designed to help brands build deeper emotional connections with consumers.