Editor's note: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly stated the percent increase for brand loyalty. The increase was 4.6 percent.
DETROIT -- Automakers' efforts to retain customers are paying off, according to an R.L. Polk & Co. study, as nearly half of last year's customers bought or leased a vehicle of the same brand they had before.
Overall, Polk found that industry brand loyalty rose from 45.8 percent in 2009 to 47.9 percent in 2010 -- a 4.6 percent increase.
"Historically we've just let loyalty happen and measure it on the back end," said Brad Smith, director of Polk's loyalty management practice. "What we're seeing now is more manufacturers actively managing loyalty and trying to influence it."
In the study released March 31, Ford Motor Co. topped General Motors as the manufacturer with the strongest customer loyalty in 2010.
Last year, Ford increased its loyalty to 63.1 percent, up 3.9 percentage points from the previous year. At the same time, GM's loyalty remained at 59.9 percent.
Toyota Motor Corp. ranked third at 58.8 percent, down 0.4 percentage points from 2009. The small loss in owner loyalty is not indicative of initial customer desertion after the automaker's recall campaign in 2009 and 2010, Smith said.
"Reality is, Toyota did a fabulous job of addressing those recalls. They made sure to get the word out about what products were affected and they issued more incentives than they ever had previously to keep customers coming back," he said. "I think if the recalls were having that big of an effect we would have seen much higher defection in customer loyalty."
When Polk looks at manufacturer loyalty, it separates GM, Ford, Toyota, Chrysler Group LLC, Nissan Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co. from other automakers because they have so many brands associated with them, Smith said.
"In those instances there is more opportunity for owners to be loyal to a given manufacturer," Smith said. "It's making sure you are doing a relative comparison between the populations."
Polk determines loyalty by looking at the number of households that had previously bought a new vehicle and returned to the market to lease or buy another new vehicle of the same make or nameplate in 2010. Polk studied purchase behavior in 5.2 million households between January and December 2010.
Ford also ranked as the most popular brand in the study, bringing back customers 60.3 percent of the time, an increase of 4.5 percentage points from 2009. Mercedes-Benz was the second most loyal brand, up 2.1 percentage points from the previous year to 56.7 percent. Honda came third with 56.6 percent loyalty, an increase of 1.1 percentage points. Toyota had a slight decrease in loyalty, dropping 0.4 percentage points to 56.4 percent, but keeping it among the top brands. Coming in fifth was the Chevrolet brand, up 1.4 percentage points to 53 percent loyalty.
Product drives owner loyalty, Smith said, and Ford's refreshed lineup and telematics systems have brought it success in that area.
"Ford had flawless execution with the introduction of Sync and MyFord Touch," he said. "Those product introductions and the buzz surrounding those new product introductions through advertising and marketing drive owner loyalty."
The Chrysler brand's results weren't as favorable. Loyalty fell 0.4 percentage points in 2010, to 23.8 percent. Other brands with declining loyalty in 2010 were Volvo, Audi, Mini, Smart, Hummer, Saab and Suzuki.
Rising to the top
Polk also assessed nameplate loyalty, finding that customers overall were 2.3 percentage points more likely to return to the same nameplate than in the previous year.
The Mercedes-Benz E class topped the nameplate loyalty list with a 7.3 percentage point increase to 44.2 percent. Ford's F series line of pickups was second, rising 5.6 percentage points 42.4 percent. Third was the Lincoln MKZ, seeing a 16.2 percentage point loyalty spike to 41.6 percent.
Smith said he is not surprised the MKZ popped to near the top.
"Ford is not just focusing on the Ford brand in terms of retaining their owners," he said. "They've put some plans in place to make sure that with the termination of the Mercury brand they're going to do everything they can to get those Mercury owners into a Ford or a Lincoln when they return to market."