The Loyalty Formula or How to Convert a Gerbil Wheel into a Flywheel

Is your business a gerbil wheel or a flywheel?

A flywheel demands a lot of energy to get up to speed. But once it gets going, all it needs to keep it going is an occasional light shove in the right direction. 

A gerbil wheel demands a lot of energy too. But it never develops any momentum on its own. It spins only when the gerbil is running. And if you're the business owner, then guess what?

You are the gerbil.

Graduate from Gerbil-hood

Every startup begins life as a gerbil wheel business.

You want to become a flywheel business as soon as possible.

Flywheel companies require loyal customers, customers who buy from you over and over again.

I want loyal customers. You want loyal customers. 

Ten customers who each buy 10 times are worth way more than 100 customers who each buy only once.

So let's ask the question: how do you create loyalty in your customers?

The obvious - and wrong - answer is "Quality."

To be sure, if you have a quality offering, you might attract and keep more customers. And then again, maybe you won't.

Quality is hard. And time-consuming. And is no guarantee of loyalty.


Samsung and Apple build phones with similar quality, specs, features and warranties. But Samsung can't begin to dream of the kind of customer loyalty Apple enjoys.

Clearly, quality alone is not the answer.

But if not quality, then what? Can you create loyalty apart from quality? Is quality even a necessary ingredient in the loyalty stew?

Before I answer those questions, let's first define terms.

As anyone who has ever debugged code knows, you can't find a solution until you clearly define the problem. Therefore, before we can figure out how to create customer loyalty, we should first define exactly what loyalty is. 

Loyalty Unpacked & Analyzed

Briefly, loyalty is passionate devotion. The giveaway is the word "passionate." That means it is an emotion.

And - spoiler alert! - an emotion is not a rational decision.

Loyalty is an emotional response.

It is not something you can CHOOSE to DO. It is something that HAPPENS to YOU. 

Just like anger or fear or joy or disgust, loyalty is an emotion. Unlike most other emotions though, loyalty has a very long half-life. Anger comes and goes - sometimes in seconds. So does happiness. So do most other emotions.

Loyalty though has an element of time that most other emotions lack. It is semi-permanent.

Like any other emotion, it is a response to some sort of stimulus. But unlike most other emotions, its decay time is measured in years rather than minutes.

It is the long half-life of the emotion that makes loyalty so valuable. 

Are there any other emotions with a long half-life?

Yes. Bitterness.

When anger doesn't quickly decay, it turns into bitterness. Anger becomes a self-perpetuating emotion that can last for years.

So we can see that there is a model for an emotion with a normally short decay period that can turn into a self-sustaining emotion with a long decay period.

The Emotional Elements of Loyalty

So what emotions combine to create loyalty? Or - what are the proto-loyalty emotions?

(I use Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions as my model for human emotion.)

My research indicates that loyalty is a complex cluster of at least three low-intensity emotions:

1. Optimism (mild positive + strong positive)

2. Love (strong positive + strong positive)

3. Submission (strong positive + mild negative)

I hope you're slightly alarmed by that last word. You should be thinking to yourself, "Submission? Is he out of his mind?" 

I might be crazy. And you should be alarmed about the use of that word. But it's not as nutty as you might think. I'll address it in just a moment. First though...

Building Loyalty, One Emotion At a Time

According to Plutchik...

Optimism occurs at the intersection of Interest and Serenity.

Interest is mildly pleasurable, Serenity is strongly pleasurable. Both constituent emotions of Optimism are positive, so Optimism is experienced as a positive, pleasurable emotion.

Love lies at the intersection of Serenity and Acceptance. The constituent emotions of love - Serenity and Acceptance - are both unambiguously positive. Thus, Love is experienced as a positive, pleasurable emotion.

Submission is a combination of a strong positive emotion - Acceptance - and a mild negative emotion - Apprehension. Submission has a mixed emotional flavor. It can have both positive and negative elements to it, but it favors the positive emotion.

Its mixed positive-and-negative nature makes Submission the magic glue that holds Loyalty together.

Taken together, Loyalty is a net positive emotion. It generates mostly pleasurable feedback for the person who experiences it.

But it is not purely positive or purely pleasurable. It has a mildly negative component as well. This complexity makes it resilient. Loyalty has the capacity to endure under many different conditions.

To create loyalty then, you must provoke the emotions of Optimism and Love in your target audience

Do your job well, and the target audience will provide Submission on their own.

The sequence is:

Optimism first. Then Love. Finally Submission

About Manipulation

Now, let's talk about emotional manipulation.

You should be wondering whether or not these emotions can be used to manipulate people. 

Loyalty is a complex cluster or emotions, so it should not surprise you that the answer is also complex. 

Yes, some leaders can use these emotional tools to try to create loyalty.

They can, but they won't.


Because aspiring leaders have much more powerful tools they can use

If you try to use those emotions on your customers, you'll be laughed out the door. Oh, you might win a sale here and there. But you won't keep customers who were roped in that way.

Negative Emotions

These negative emotions are great for building a doomsday group, a following or a cult but they are lousy for building a business.

Positive Emotions

The positive emotions of Optimism and Love are the only ones you should consciously cultivate. Then the negative emotion of Submission will occur naturally once we create the positive ones.

Here's how:

If we do a great job of of provoking Interest, Serenity and Acceptance, then our target audience will naturally feel Optimism and Love towards us. And then - just as night follows day - they will begin to feel a little bit of Apprehension.

Why? Because Optimism and Love feel good. And they will want to keep feeling good. And they will naturally develop a little bit of Apprehension about losing the pleasure of those positive emotions.

We won't try to alleviate their Apprehension because frankly we are not the source of it. The Apprehension comes from within them.

But we will do everything in our power to amplify the emotions of Interest, Serenity and Acceptance. With the strength of those three emotions, they will develop feelings of Optimism, Love and finally Submission.

And we will be the object of those emotions.

Next time, I will talk about some specific techniques that have been proven to stimulate the Loyalty response.