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The Science Behind Automotive Brand Loyalty: What Makes People Love Their Cars?

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We’ve all seen someone with a Chevy or Ford tattoo covering their arm. But automotive brand loyalty isn’t limited to over-the-top car enthusiasts such as these—average consumers often develop an allegiance to certain brands, too.

That observation becomes obvious when you consider that, according to J.D. Power, Subaru ranks the highest amongst all automakers when it comes to brand loyalty. Even though you might not see a lot of gearheads sporting Subie tatts, the automaker clearly has a devout following.

car owners showing their love for their car
Several factors help create a solid bond between a person and an automotive brand.

And that leads us to ask—why? Subaru doesn’t have the unrelenting reliability of Honda or Toyota, nor does it have the (subjectively) “cool” factor of a brand like RAM.

Because automotive brand loyalty centers around human psychology, the concept can be difficult to dissect. Typically, it’s not just one, but many factors, that help create a solid bond between customer and company.

To better understand the process, we need to analyze the automakers with the highest level of brand loyalty.

What Automakers Have the Highest Level of Brand Loyalty?

Brand loyalty is when a customer returns to a company for multiple transactions (even when a competitor offers a better deal). Most studies list the number of brand-loyal, return customers as a percentage.

As was mentioned, in a 2019 study, J.D. Power found Subaru to have the highest loyalty rating (61.5%) among all mass-market brands. Toyota and Honda were runners-up, with ratings of 59.5% and 57.7%, respectively.

When it comes to luxury brands, Lexus did the best, earning a loyalty rating of 47.6%. Mercedes-Benz came in at second place with a 44.2% rating, while BMW came in third at 42.6%.

Loyalty vs. Quality

One would think that brand loyalty would be based primarily on quality—yet there are some companies with a less-than-average reliability rating that still have a loyal following.

For example, according to an article from Forbes, Mercedes ranked 17th (out of 29 automakers) in a reliability study. Nonetheless, the brand has one of the highest loyalty ratings for a luxury car company.

The story is similar for Subaru. RepairPal gives the brand a reliability score that’s slightly better than average (3.5 out of 5.0). Still, as previously mentioned, the Japanese automaker had the highest level of brand loyalty in 2019.

To grasp why dependability isn’t always the key motivator behind brand loyalty, it helps to consider the several layers of the psychology behind the subject.

guy choosing a car
A car’s dependability isn’t always the key motivator behind brand loyalty.

The Psychology Behind Brand Loyalty

Brand loyalty—regardless of whether it’s to a vehicle manufacturer or a trendy clothing line—happens when the consumer forms a connection with the company.

Offering a high-quality product (as Toyota and Honda do) is one way to create that connection. But even automakers with average quality, such as Subaru, can create a loyal fan base with the right marketing strategies.

How Brands Create Loyalty

According to an article from Entrepreneur, five key marketing strategies create brand loyalty. These include:

  1. Standing out by being different.
  2. Catering to a target market.
  3. Creating a series of positive experiences.
  4. Building a community.
  5. Making the brand a part of one’s personal identity.

It’s easy to see where each of these factors comes into play with Subaru’s brand loyalty:

  1. Subaru stands out as an eco-friendly alternative to today’s oversized SUVs.
  2. Subaru caters to a target market of consumers who view themselves as conscientious outdoor enthusiasts.
  3. Subaru creates a series of positive experiences through special events and philanthropic endeavors.
  4. Subaru has built a community through its Love campaign—a marketing initiative that implies that love is the factor that unites the brand’s customer base.
  5. Subaru knows its customer—that’s why it sponsored Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl (rather than the Super Bowl) and why it engages in charitable outreach.

Basically, the brand’s message is:

If you own a Subaru, you’re a socially aware individual who supports animals, the earth, and love—and that idea works exceptionally well with Subaru’s target customers.

subaru logo
According to a study by J.D. Power, Subaru has the highest loyalty rating among all mass-market brands.

2 Types of Brand-Loyal Consumers

Subaru’s success can be attributed, in part, to the idea that there are two types of brand-loyal consumers: those who are satisfied and those who are committed.

A satisfied customer bases their purchasing decisions primarily on dependability, according to an article from CBT Automotive Network. On the other hand, a committed customer bases their decision primarily on emotion.

It’s easy to see where the top contenders fall into these two categories. Repeat Honda and Toyota customers are more likely to belong to the “satisfied” group, while Subaru and Mercedes buyers are more likely to be “committed.”

That brings us back to the tattooed car enthusiast. Indeed, if someone is willing to get a tattoo of a certain automaker, they’re taking emotion-based, committed brand loyalty to the next level.

Are You Loyal to a Certain Automotive Brand?

What about you? Are you loyal to a specific automotive brand or are you open to all makes and models? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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Author

Mia Bevacqua

Chief Mechanic at CarParts.com

Mia Bevacqua is an automotive expert with over 15 years of industry experience. She holds ASE Master, L1, L2, and L3 Advanced Level Specialist certification, as well as a bachelor's degree in Advanced Automotive Systems.

Throughout her career, Mia has applied her skills toward automotive failure analysis inspections, consulting, diagnostic software development, and of course, freelance writing. Today, she writes for companies around the world, with many well-known clients showcasing her work.

Mia has a passion for math, science, and technology that motivates her to stay on top of the latest industry trends, such as electric vehicles and autonomous systems. At the same time, she has a weakness for fixer-upper oddballs, such as her 1987 Chevy Cavalier Z-24 and 1998 Chevy Astro Van AWD.

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