Brand experience is hardly a new construct. Popularized by Pine and Gilmour in 1999, it has been conceptualized more recently by Columbia University researchers as the sensations, feelings, cognitions and behavioural responses evoked by brand-related stimuli.
Brand experience has been featured in industry news again recently, though this time around, with less emphasis on retail and physical environments, and more as a multi-disciplinary approach to, and measure of, omni-channel marketing.
This is different from the current consensus, which I propose has been focused too much on messaging and personalization technologies themselves (hence the emphasis on programmatic), at the expense of using the changes technology has brought to truly connect with people in a meaningful way.
Brand experience, the way I approach it, focuses on creating positive emotional outcomes for every interaction with a brand, whether that person is a prospect, a buyer, or an employee. That experience can come via content, service experiences, telephone calls, or retail experiences, among others. It is distinct from customer experience, which focuses on the experiences of those who have already purchased. As such, brand experience is, and must be, interdisciplinary and cross-departmental. It goes beyond marketing or customer service, to innovation, sales, and HR. A truly unique and memorable brand experience demands that all of those parts work in harmony, toward a shared vision.
And as we move toward an increasingly service-based economy, where talent is short, and consumer demands are high, brands will need to determine how best to navigate the complexity of crafting a unique and memorable brand experience. This shift from a siloed, technology-focused approach to a cohesive, collaborative, experiential and emotional approach will have to come from leadership — but who will be responsible for implementation, and how can a brand begin the process, especially if it’s selling services?
Step 1 is to recognize that brand experience is largely an exercise in self-knowledge — you have to determine what you stand for. Your differentiation is key, and it must be authentic. If it is, you will attract new prospects and retain your existing clients, while motivating your employees and drawing in new talent.
Ideally, this approach will lead your brand to becoming a cultural platform. TOMS shoes is an excellent example. The socially responsible company launched by promising to donate one pair of shoes to people in need for every pair of shoes sold, rather than spending on advertising. They grew traditionally, expanding their operations to eventually reach the massive scale they’re at now. But the founder realized that the company’s mission wasn’t being realized in new and exciting ways, costing them talent and edge in the marketplace.
Rather than offering a different line of shoes or accessories, or expanding vertically and buying up the producers of their materials, TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie started a socially responsible coffee shop called TOMS Roasters. TOMS Roaster aligns with their brand’s core purpose, by donating a week’s worth of clean drinking water for every bag of coffee sold. In doing so, they continue to build on their cultural platform of responsibility through philanthropy, making TOMS more than a shoe or coffee company, but a ‘giving’ experience.
You don’t need to give up advertising or donate goods to become a cultural platform though. Ultimately, it’s about the emotions you create, and the way you create them. And of course, no brand experience can save a company with a subpar product or service, or cultural issues. But those who do have a great culture and great product stand to benefit enormously from an approach that turns a static brand into something living and transformative.
With so much mediocrity in the world, creating experiences will become an art and science that determines which brands will thrive in the 21st century. The brands that do will outperform any organization that focuses on personalization to the exclusion of purpose and experience. In fact, without an emotional connection to a brand, chances are personalization will just creep people out.
Technology is just technology — it’s how people respond to it and change because of it that should be the focus of brands’ efforts. The marketing world especially has been focused on the features of technology for too long, rather than looking at their broader impact on society, and adapting. The real lesson of this decade won’t be that survival of a brand is based on joining Facebook — it’s that developments like Facebook have resulted in a shift in expectations. The onus is on us to step up to the plate.
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