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Can too much loyalty be bad for you?

Too much loyalty can be a double-edged sword. Whether you're a pop icon, a business leader, a sports team or a brand.

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My favourite pop star is famous for his uncompromising live gigs, where he reinterprets his classics so that they are unrecognisable to casual fans, refuses to interact with the audience for 90 per cent of the concert and often won't do an encore. I, and his other loyal fans, love him for it. The more uncompromising, the better. He can do no wrong. He's unlikely to top the charts, however. (He's an artist, not a business, so, in this case, it's all for the best – unless you only know his best-of album and turn up at a festival this summer expecting him to play a greatest-hits set.)

I've worked with business leaders who value loyalty over challenge and unconditional agreement over development. I don't work at those places any more (I tend not to be their type), but read Scoop for one of the best examples in literature with the character Lord Copper, a newspaper magnate so fearsome that his obsequious foreign editor, Mr Salter, can never openly disagree with any statement he makes, answering "Up to a point, Lord Copper" in place of "no". (You might find this useful yourself at times.) Business leaders like him can build empires, but they don't create the most satisfactory places to work or, indeed, to develop.

Too much loyalty can be a double-edged sword in sport too. In Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played And Games Are Won, the authors Toby Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim tell the story of their home baseball team, the Chicago Cubs. Their performance is so bad and so notorious that it is commonly attributed to a long-term curse. The last time the Cubs won the World Series was in 1908 and their ongoing performance was summed up by their play-by-play announcer, Jack Brickhouse, in seven words: "Everyone is entitled to a bad century." Moskowitz and Wertheim set out to look for the facts: statistically, are the fans right to think that the Cubs are particularly unlucky?

Unsurprisingly, the answer is no, according to the book: "The Cubs' ritual underperformance in terms of wins is perfectly understandable when you examine their performance on the field." But if it isn't bad luck, is there another underlying reason?

The authors think there is. That it is, in fact, due to the loyalty of their fans. They examined home-game attendance versus performance for every team in the league. The Cubs' attendance is the least sensitive to performance. Therefore, financially, the club has less incentive to perform than its rivals. They have lots of loyal fans who are used to losing and happy to have a great day out. Some argue that the team has a "perverse incentive to maintain their image as a 'loveable loser'". A popular fan T-shirt reads: "Cubs baseball: shut up and drink your beer."

In fact, beer prices have a bigger effect on attendance than team performance. Cubs fans will tolerate bad performance and high ticket prices, but draw the line at expensive beer. This "makes for a fun day at the ballpark, but doesn't give the ownership much incentive to reverse the culture of losing".

Interesting, isn't it? We can all think of football teams whose loyal long-term supporters in some way relish the constant disappointment of a typical season, in stark contrast with the impatience of, say, a Chelsea fan (or owner) with a manager who doesn't perform consistently and immediately.

Back to brands. Too much loyalty can be a signifier that the brand is static, hasn't grown, isn't changing or updating itself sufficiently to attract the promiscuous consumer or top up its younger base.

In the long term, a business culture needs an element of restlessness and dissatisfaction to keep growing. If that means upsetting some loyalists, it may be a necessary price to pay.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom
@sueu

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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