Why are so many customer experiences now just marketing sugar?

Experiences as marketing sugar

It’s easy to see why customer experiences have become marketers’ go-to fix. Like content marketing they are such an accepted part of the lexicon today that many marketers have them on their to-do list as a matter of course.

Right now, it feels like the experience strategy of almost every brand is to hook their customers on sweet moments that have them coming back for more. According to Freeman, 93 percent of marketers agree that a personalised brand experience can help to create a stronger connection to a brand, and 91 percent agree that this tactic can drive increased sales with customers.

Agree totally that experiences should be personalised, that they should have a strong connection to the brand (I’ll come back to this) and that they should increase sales (let’s talk about that as well).

Experiences won’t just sell products. Experiences will be the products. But … (yes, there is a but)

It’s the nature and the rationale of the experiences that I’m more concerned about. Doug Stephens made some great observations about how customer experience design is playing out in the retail sector. He starts by asserting that experiences have the potential to be much more powerful than they are already. “Experiences won’t just sell products. Experiences will be the products.” But the key reason they’re falling short in delivering on that in retail, he says, is because there’s a fundamental misconception about what customer experience is and how it should be conceived. Retailers, he says, have made some fundamental mistakes:

  • They assume that customer experience is primarily aesthetic, so they deal with it at a totally visual level;
  • They confuse experience with service;
  • They think experience is related to data.

“The disappointment sets in when all these sorts of investments produce little in the way of marked improvement, either in enhanced customer satisfaction, improved foot traffic or sales. This is because they haven’t really designed a new customer experience at all. They’ve just put fresh icing on the same stale cake.”

In the light of his comments, take another look at that level of agreement amongst marketers. Because where others see a mandate, I worry that I see a herd and another marketing quick-fix. I wonder how many marketers are really thinking through why a customer experience is so important and why they need that much vaunted bells-and-whistles experience strategy that their agency has sold them? Is that what buyers always want or have brands simply talked themselves, or been talked, into making high-energy experiences the new must-add? Could be there be a simple alternative given that almost everyone around them is striving to offer exactly the same thing?

Brand experiences as calorific nonsense

Storyteller Colin Rowsell posted this on LinkedIn: “One of the most ‘delightful’ things I own is my Chromebook. It delights me by doing what I expect, without hassle, at a fair price. So does my bookshelf. And my bed. On the other hand, when overexcited designers and marketers try to stuff me full of delight like a candy-fed cow, I just feel irritated and look elsewhere, for things that don’t need constant sugary approval.”

My question is: Should there always be a brand experience? Sometimes, surely, customers just want things to be good. No experience needed. Brands don’t need to earn points, flip us stuff, give us a new take on the world. We don’t need to marvel at how clever they are, or love what they do for our ego or social circle. We just need what we need. No more. No less.

The increasing difficulty for marketers I think is to let something do what it does without automatically adding some level of artificial enhancement. Easier said than done in an age where everyone is being told to leverage up the treats.

It’s becoming a vicious circle. We are, as Sophie Heawood so delightfully put it, in danger of turning consumers into “everythingists” – the combination of perfectionism, narcissism and laziness that has people saying they want the benefits of what’s on offer, because they feel they now deserve it, and that they don’t want to miss out, whilst at the same time failing to make any reciprocal commitment based on what they have been served up.

As that happens, brands are training customers to be wow-ed whilst running down the value of each wow as they do so. Experiences are in danger of becoming the digital equivalent of the old sales promotion, except that the coupon value of each hit is decreasing and will continue to do so.

Liquid expectation

“Great brands are a combination of promise and proof”, says Hector Pottie, Creative Director at Method London. And he makes an excellent observation about why marketers have been so keen to turn customer experiences into addictive moments that they can drip-feed shoppers over time as a way to keep their attention. It’s all about the changing power of that proof.

“Brands and the experiences they give are time based … Our ‘liquid expectation’ is constantly adjusting as we move from one experience to the next, lots of good experiences over time equals fulfillment and engagement, a few bad ones equals apathy.” That concept of “liquid expectation” is beautiful isn’t it? To me, it points to how experiences flow (literally) into emotions and that those emotions then colour our interest in, perhaps our need for, more interactions with that brand. On reflection that’s as true for a simple interaction on a screen as it is for something more dramatic. Every little bit adds up or subtracts from shoppers’ total awareness and interest.

Except that, going back to my point earlier, as the world is flooded with more and more experiences, the net effect of each experience will inevitably decline and many more will become lost in the noise.

Simplicity as an experience in its own right

OK, it’s always easy to criticise. But if you’re a middle/upper market brand and you want to enhance loyalty and grow your top-line, what options do you have beyond trying to out-experience others? What should your experience strategy be given that everyone around you, and particularly your competitors, are now offering ‘customer experiences with everything’ and bragging about the results they’re achieving on their social media links?

(Interestingly, the one metric that doesn’t seem to get a lot of airtime is sales.)

One option is to head in the opposite direction. As more brands look to enhance their experiences, pushing your brand to become more simple is a viable, alternative strategy. Heretical as that may sound, research shows that as experience-focused brands seek to lock in more of consumers’ time and engagement, over 60% of consumers say they would actually pay more for brands that saved them time and that made things more straight-forward. Yes, even that’s about experience at one level in that it’s about good CX and UX, but it’s also about using consistency, brevity, transparency, personality and empathy to cut friction and complication. Not every brand has to be a showboat. As sectors become more complex, and decisions become more involved, brands that can express what’s on offer in ways that customers quickly identify with, and see benefit in, will look increasingly attractive.

The new FOMO for marketers is that their brand doesn’t tick all the experience boxes that their competitors seem to be ticking

So perhaps the discipline now doesn’t lie in simply adding customer experiences per se but rather in being able to discern and filter when adding experiences is extraneous and will only serve to dilute what customers get. And that’s hard. As the arms race for more content, more stories, more experiences and more journeys continues to ramp up, that powerful herd mentality I referred has set in. The new FOMO for marketers is that their brand doesn’t tick these boxes, that it doesn’t keep up and that such shortcomings make it uncompetitive. More personally, it can reflect on the marketer themselves: do they not know how to keep up? There is a risk of that to be sure. But there is perhaps a greater risk that the brands that obsess on this are throwing a great deal of effort and resources at looking more and more like everyone else whilst telling themselves that they are somehow differentiating themselves.

More than just photo opportunities

Writing at The Drum, David Schwarz observes that too many experiences, particularly those powered by social media, have become photo-opps. “Experience offers a combination of one-on-one engagement and brand loyalty that has made experiential the next battleground for consumer attention,” he writes, “ …[but] While it might be tempting to follow the lead of social media culture, the experience industry needs to realize that brands can’t build real relationships with their audiences if they aren’t maintaining the integrity of the real-life experience. This means creating experiences where the core value is the experience itself, not the social photographic record of it.” I’d go further and say that the key connection for every experience strategy needs to be with the brand itself and everything it stands for, but his point is well made.

If you get a chance, take a look at John Manley’s deck on Brand Experience Planning. He makes some great points about how to strategise in this area that I think counter the temptation to just blindly paint an experience on everything:

  • Develop and deliver the right content in the right context at the right time in the right sequence
  • Create what Manley calls an “Ownable Context” at the intersection of consumer interests, brand equity and product attributes
  • Build an Experience Path that starts with looking to attract the greatest audience size and then, over time, looks to deepen involvement at the same time as it becomes more specific
  • Recognise that a great experience is not a deliverable, it’s a way of working – and it’s not a media check list, but rather a stimulant for ideation.

My own view is that we will see increasing polarisation around experience strategies. Right now, a lot of brands are reluctant to embrace simplicity or even straight-ahead excellent service because they worry that it signals discounting or that it looks too pragmatic. But, ironically, as the pressure to delight consumers becomes greater and greater, the wish to explore options that are more minimalist and unfiltered will increase.

The actions and the memories

Yasushi Kusume quotes Marty Neumeier’s definition of an experience, which is as good as any I’ve read: “all the interactions people have with a product, service, or organization; the raw material of a brand.” ) Too true. Experiences are a delivery point. They can be when a brand truly comes to life, when it proves that it can do what it promised in engaging and enjoyable ways.

Part of the issue I think is that we have conflated experiences, events and promotions into a single strategy association that it is now so broadbrush it includes everything from touchpoints to publicity stunts. Bruce Henderson neatly distinguishes between these different interpretations of what constitutes brand experiences in this way:

Brand experience – proof of a brand’s promise or the benefits of a product or service. This is close to Neumeier’s definition: “effective brand experiences are designed to create specific, valuable interactions between brands and/or products and services and the people that matter most to them. Done well, these interactions result in deeper emotional connections and greater brand affinity. Done poorly, they can have the opposite effect.

Events as brand experiences – meetings, trade shows and conferences built around a common theme that is of common interest to the participants.

Experiential activations – consumer-oriented experiences that are often promotional by nature and intended to achieve four key objectives:

  • Create physical and emotional engagement with a brand or product
  • Associate the product with the equity of another brand (sports or music sponsorships)
  • Gain earned media through social and press mentions
  • Grow relationships through digital interactions

The key goal, according to Henderson, is to achieve the extraordinary, to offer bold experiences, regardless of type, because “brands are built on physical and mental availability, and mental availability is built on memory”.

Which leads us back to Kusume – and to two aspects of Daniel Kahneman’s work that he highlights as highly pertinent to understanding the influence that experience should have on how customers think about brands. The peak-end rule says people only remember the peak moment of an experience and its end. And the duration neglect principle states that the length of an event has no effect on the memory of an experience.

Tying this back to the two aspects of self – the “experiencing” self and the “remembering” self – Kusume explains that, “Today you have to ensure that customers enjoy the experience you offer not just while they experience it, but also afterwards when they recall it. That’s why, for me, the focus should always be on the remembering self. For if your aim is to increase the long-term growth in your brand value and equity by maximising your brand experience, it will be the end-phase that exerts the most influence … what people feel when they ‘leave’ your brand is what they’ll remember and, more than likely, pass on to their friends.”

With every experience, people don’t remember what actually happened; they remember what they believe happened. And those may or may not be the same thing. They also remember what they most intensely felt because that is the predominant emotion for the exchange. So how do you make a brand experience really count?

I found myself asking four questions as I read Kusume’s piece. If you are going to design a customer experience to accompany a brand:

  • How long should an experience be in order to be most memorable?
  • What is the most powerful emotion you want to convey in the course of that experience? (which should in my opinion tie back to the core idea that underpins your brand).
  • What will customers recall and share? – an emotion, something physical, a message, an awareness. And what will motivate them to do so? (i.e. how will the overwhelming emotion play out in socialising the idea with others?)
  • How simple can we make this in order to achieve the above? Or should we not bother because that is/could be more powerful still?

These ideas align neatly with Manley’s Experience Path and to point 9 in the summary of Pottie’s views below. It doesn’t really matter which ‘version’ of a customer or brand experience you are developing, these ideas provide an objective for every experience journey that should focus not just on what happens but why it happens in order to add to impact and recall. And that’s true for experiences that are planned as well as those that stem from (near) spontaneous situations – i.e. when a business is looking to offer its customers great service and is working through how to design that to be most effective.

An experience opportunity missed

The other day I was on a plane coming home in the middle of a fierce storm. On our second approach, the plane was hit by lightning and we were forced to turn back. That turn-around was a major setback for many of us. But the critical interaction didn’t occur then, it happened when we landed and a couple of hundred annoyed, tired and hungry people got off and trudged downstairs to the service counter looking to get more information and rebook new flights.

The besieged staff did very well, keeping their cool and allocating new flights, despite some bad behaviour by a handful of people who were just plain bloody ungrateful. But, on reflection, the airline missed a couple of simple customer experience opportunities. Many of those on the service desk seemed focused on speed (which aligns with the duration-neglect principle), when in fact the key emotion at play for many of us was certainty (the peak-end rule). A couple of queue walkers or even a pre-landing announcement that everyone would have a bed for the night and that they would all be on flights the next morning would have done a lot to placate frustrations. By that stage in the evening, who was paying was less important than what was available.

The other opportunity that was missed, emotionally, was recognition. For the airline’s most frequent fliers this was an opportunity to show that in a crisis the reward for being a high-tiered member of the loyalty programme really kicked in. For example, they could have opened two counters (which also would have sped up processing) – one for those who don’t fly a great deal and another for those who were among the airline’s most valued customers. As it was, the queue snaked down the terminal with those further back in the plane being looked after on that basis rather than on what they meant to the airline in terms of ongoing relationships.

No-one needed sugar or hoopla on this occasion. They needed sincerity, great service and a way of delivering that through a designed experience that recognised and responded to what was foremost in people’s minds at 9pm on a weeknight miles from home.

Experience strategy rethought: 14 ways to get to the right customer experience

Several years ago, I asked: Is your brand ready for the experience war? At the time, the concept was still in its infancy. But now that customer experiences and experience strategy have reached maturation, how should we move forward with developing experiences? More? Better and faster? Less? Shorter? Louder? Brighter? There’s no one answer of course because that would just be another saccharine formula.

Two viewpoints on this.

The first, from Doug Stephens’ article on getting retail experiences right. Truly remarkable customer experiences, he says, are engaging, unique, personalised, surprising and repeatable. His process for getting there is what really interests me:

  1. True customer experience design, he says, requires breaking down the entire customer journey into its smallest component parts and then re-engineering each component to look, feel and most importantly, operate differently than before and distinctly from competitors. Every action starts with an aim. It sounds obvious when you say it like that – but it’s remarkable how many actions are there to answer to the process.
  2. It also means doing something I alluded to earlier – understanding the underlying customer need – and then, as Stephens says, “designing the exact combination of people, place, product and process to deliver delight in that micro-moment.” I think too that it’s important to remember that while every moment in a process should serve the customer and the brand, some moments are more critical than others in terms of achieving Kahneman’s ideas.
  3. Stephens talks about the need for storytelling and for the brand story itself to be embedded in every customer interaction, which is something I too believe is often lost. Because storytelling is something that humans find easy to follow, it makes sense to integrate the concept of narrative into what customers experience.
  4. Finally, he discusses another aspect that is very close to my heart: “using different language, methods, rituals and processes than your competitors so that the resulting experience is tangibly foreign and fascinating compared to anything else they’ve been through.” There’s a lot more work to be done in this area I believe.

Second viewpoint. Hector Pottie has 10 nice recommendations for how to deliver great experiences that work to truly elevate what customers get and how they feel. I’ve paraphrased them here:

  1. Build experiences out of deep customer needs not just the technology you have available. Understand insight and need.
  2. Make your experiences competitive in the sense that they achieve more for customers than the experiences of rivals. Dare to stand apart by staying true not just being more dramatic or attention-seeking.
  3. Establish trust and addiction by offering free experiences first. Then use that to transit to experiences that customers want to invest in.
  4. Use physical spaces as opportunities to deliver powerful physically-based experiences rather than as the place to house your inventory.
  5. Encourage public participation because you want people to tell stories that are true to them about the experiences they had and to share those stories with others.
  6. Act as the filter, the editor, the curator for people – simplify their choices by giving them personalised recommendations that they enjoy and return to.
  7. Connect customer experiences and make those connections multiple, consistent, seamless, personal and real-time. Think of brands as relationships – and therefore as ongoing dialogues. Interactive, narrative, transaction, and fulfillment should all be consistent elements across the experience.
  8. Continue to improve what works – Pottie calls this “perpetual beta”, I refer it as the iterative experience that is now deeply embedded in our expectations of the iterative economy. Customer experiences are continually up for review and upgrade. That doesn’t necessarily mean they become more boisterous. It does mean they become increasingly meaningful.
  9. Understand the emotion you are looking to deliver and hone in on that. Make that the key objective of what you are creating and the measure of your success. I love how he puts this: “those of us who own, run, or create brands have a chance and a responsibility to create exquisite poetic amazing soul enriching and life affirming wondrous emotional experiences. It’s important. Really important. Otherwise, the world will quickly become a very dull place.”
  10. Be a force for good in the world through the experiences you provide – Pottie suggests that there are four dimensions to this: ethically; environmentally; socially; and morally. Act on that, he suggests, because those are experiences your customers will value.

Updated: This article elaborates on a post originally published in June 2017. It has been  updated in June 2018 to include more detail and discussion points. The original version of this article was posted on this blog and elsewhere under the title Is Brand Experience The New Sugar?

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