In a shopping-around culture the fidelity of ordinary people is despised and penalised rather than rewarded
Here’s my prediction for 2013 (I like to get them in early): soon we will have forgotten to how to use the word “loyalty” without its best friend “card”.
It was a computer problem that first triggered this burst of pessimism. Rummaging around my anti-virus protection I discovered that the company that provides it (let’s name and shame you, Norton) had put me down for automatic annual renewal, which apparently equates to automatic annual hefty increase. My computer repairer, Kevin, told me I’d be better off subscribing anew to the same Norton programme from any of a dozen other companies. A microsecond later I’d found it at half the loyal-customer price.
Now it’s time to renew my home insurance (though I wonder why I bother, given the number of nano-print exclusions and acts of God – isn’t there house insurance for atheists?). Here I’ve come up against what financial data collection company Defaqto discovered in a report five years ago: namely that inviting low premiums are on offer only to new customers. The premiums of old customers, meanwhile, are ramped up annually. As the report’s author, Brian Brown, put it: “It would appear that, increasingly, loyalty never goes unpunished and rewards are only available for the disloyal.”
More recent research has put an actual figure on it, and found that customers, if they stay with their existing insurers, are being landed with a £180 “loyalty premium”. Or, as Time magazine put it in September in a report about how TV and Wi-Fi providers escalate longstanding customers’ bills each year: “We appreciate your business. And as thanks for being a loyal customer all these years, we’re going to overcharge you.”
You know something is afoot when corporations appoint vice-presidents of loyalty and introduce loyalty programme apps that you can download on to your smartphone. There is now an entire Loyalty Industry, with annual Loyalty Awards. In 2011 there was even a Loyalty Census: it found that the average French household had 18 brand loyalty cards at the same time. Not so loyal, then.
Of course most of us are now fluent in marketing-speak. We know that loyalty means customers’ loyalty to a brand and not the other way round; that it’s a way of tracking our preferences so that we can be persuaded to buy more, more often. We also know that, if you need to appoint a vice-president of loyalty, loyalty will be the last thing the company is peddling (and that you only need a VP of loyalty because so little of it exists).
In a shopping-around culture the loyalty of ordinary people is despised and penalised rather than rewarded. Indeed, it has become suspect: if you fail to do your consumerist duty and shop around, you’re a sucker who deserves what you get. What’s true of the high street shopper is also true of the high-earning footballer. Why should Robin van Persie show loyalty to Arsenal if he could get bigger bucks elsewhere? The fact that Arsenal, fans and manager, stood by him through years of injuries matters not a jot.
You don’t erode the concept of loyalty, though, without there being wider consequences. If you commodify everything – services, relationships, even people – then you also dissolve social bonds, whose value is only cherished once it’s gone. If we feel no sense of loyalty to the places where we live and work, then truly there is no such thing as society.
When, a few hours after my first child was born, I wanted to have a bath, I found a pool of blood in the corner of the hospital bathroom, and a gruesomely filthy tub. This was just after the hospital cleaning services had been privatised. I reckoned that either the private cleaners didn’t have time to get round to this bathroom or, for the new low paltry wages, just didn’t care. Either way, I had to do it myself.
My father’s favourite part of the Bible was the bit in the Book of Ruth where she says to Naomi: “Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people.”