Editor’s note: Tom Neveril is managing partner at Storybrand Consulting, Santa Monica, Calif.

Conventional wisdom says it’s cheaper to keep customers than acquire new ones. So given the current global economic slowdown, we should expect belt-tightening marketers to continue making loyalty a top priority.

But a more important reason to focus on brand loyalty is the changing consumer mind-set. After several years of hyper-competition, consumers now perceive fewer rational differences between brands. So their loyalty is based on more emotional reasons. For example, the book Habit: The 95% of Behavior Marketers Ignore reported on a study on brand loyalty across several categories which showed that 85 percent of customers who defect report being satisfied with their previous brand.

The critical challenge for marketers is figuring out how to be on the winning side of these more emotional decisions. And specifically, how can market research help marketing teams create more loyal relationships?

The best approach to uncovering the emotional drivers of the subconscious mind is behavioral study. Patterns of behavior, like our rituals and habits, are the foundation of all emotional relationships, good or bad.

In my view, ethnographic or on-site observation is the best approach to studying behavior. However, it’s often impractical or impossible to study brand experiences as they happen. For example, consider how difficult it is to study the use of flu medications. So past behavior must be explored. For this work, the unconventional - and often misunderstood - approach of customer storytelling is well-suited.

Storytelling is not easy because it requires respondents to probe their memories. Therefore, it’s important to use an interview structure that will contribute to recall. Chronological ordering of topics is ideal. For example, a market researcher might explore how customers behave during the...