It seems everywhere I look in the marketing press these days, someone is advocating the need for brands to deliver experiences. But not everyone can or should deliver a formatted experience, and, equally, some brands would quickly wither if they didn’t.
For all the talk, definitions seem thin on the ground. My assumption when talk of experience comes up is this: a series of integrated actions that work together to lift a transaction beyond the everyday. These actions should be so specific to the spirit and values of that brand that they are immediately recognisable.
Sometimes experience is everything
There are times when that’s really important – when the experience that consumers have is perhaps the only way that they can differentiate one brand from another. Airlines and hotels are classic examples. What distinguishes one seat or room from another is seldom the object itself, and much more often everything that wraps around the functional acts of travelling or sleeping.
Retail is another obvious example. One of the reasons that online retailers have created physical shops is that they recognise the opportunity to turn a digital relationship into a physical experience, particularly as brands look to make a more holistic, lifestyle-focused approach to their relationships with customers. “When it comes to a lifestyle experience, there is no confusion around what Warby Parker, LN-CC or Kit & Ace stand for: All of them sell distinctive lifestyles and use their physical settings to articulate what they are about. There’s a doubtless appeal in the consumption rituals that these brands create — designed both to keep customers longer in their stores and to effectively transform themselves into cultural and social hubs.” It’s a concept that Starbucks built its business on: having coffee in a place that you can increasingly call your own. (We could debate the quality and/or the consistency of that experience these days … but I digress)
The danger of formatting
However, there are also plenty of places where the experiences don’t work – either because such actions feel out of place or because the experience itself serves to make the transaction feel forced or superficial. The danger of formatting what you do, particularly in service industries, is exactly that – that the consumer feels they are on the receiving end of a staged and scripted sequence rather than a genuine exchange.
Sometimes experience is really a synonym for sales
In the case of banks and fast-food outlets for example, what they call experience is really a synonym for sales. They’re going to look to sell you up every chance they get because that’s what their frontline people are instructed to do. The experiences of telcos seem to focus around getting people used to waiting – in store, online or on a calling queue – which seems weird since speed is so central to their core business. Insurers often deliver terrible experiences: sometimes because of the decisions they make, but more often because they simply cannot move past their own operating frameworks in how they deal with people. (It’s always puzzled me how an industry that is so intensely human in what it deals with, and the times at which it is working with people, can be so bad at working with customers in ways that those customers enjoy.)
Many of these brand experiences have been thought through and planned, often to a granular level of detail. But they fail because they are based on the worldview and agenda of the sender rather than the needs and priorities of the recipient.
Start with the memory and work back
In this enjoyable article on creating a memorable brand experience, Yasushi Kusume makes some great points about how we should be thinking through the extent of the experience that we want customers to have. Firstly, know the message that you are looking to convey. Secondly, select and apply the best touchpoints through which to convey and reinforce that message. Thirdly, use each touchpoint meaningfully, appropriately and distinctly. He then quotes from Daniel Kahneman: “Memories are all we get to keep from our experience of living, and the only perspective that we can adapt as we think about our lives is therefore that of the remembering self.”
To me that’s the key to deciding the type of experience a business should be delivering to its customers. It’s not about what the brand wants to deliver, it’s about what the consumer remembers. If the experience is such that what they remember is pleasurable, relevant and worth repeating, then the experience was a good one. If the experience was one that felt self-serving, unnecessary or patronising, then it was not. If all the consumer wanted was a transaction and it happened smoothly, then the occasion should be judged a success.
People over patterns
In the last year, there has been a lot of talk about the need to use big data to gain mega-views of customer priorities and to marry these with the known behaviours and preferences of customers to deliver rewarding customer experiences that feel personalised and relevant. I don’t disagree with this philosophically, but I worry about the emphasis on patterns. Because there’s a real risk here, I think, of continuing to reduce people to numbers and trends; of being too clever, too technological, too knowing …
The secrets to getting the brand experience right at the right time in the right way, it seems to me, are intuitive and still rely on a human reading of priorities:
- What do we most want them to remember us for overall?
- How much time do they have? And therefore what do we want them to remember us for on this occasion?
- What do they most want to know?
- What do they most want to do?
- How do we include a surprise element that reinforces the brand?
- How easy can we make this experience (given the time they have)?