Making it happen
The role of brand in the age of experience
Gareth Price, Senior Planner, Gareth.Price@jwt.com
Neil Godber, Head of Planning, Neil.Godber@jwt.com
J. Walter Thompson
An article in Branding Strategy Insider recently declared that “experience and not marketing is at the core of everything that matters in business moving forward in the 21st century”. It's an increasingly popular idea, with The Drum stating that “customer experience, not omnichannel presence, is key to maintaining loyalty”.
This view of what’s important in driving choice is built on the rise of ever-better-informed consumers armed with information and reviews; increasing cynicism towards marketing and brands; growing trust in peer-to-peer recommendations; and the emergence of Silicon Valley-inspired products, offering functional superiority and delivering a seamless user experience. The corollary to this is the notion that brands and their values are becoming less believable, credible and important, as is the communications industry that builds them.
However, the tendency to believe customer experience is the most important driver of consumer behaviour relies on a blinkered view of what constitutes and contributes to an experience, what people bring to the party as well as how decisions are actually made. For some, Stephen King’s 1976 writings remain as true today as then: “There is still a puritan streak in us which says that it is wicked for people to have non-functional values, that they ought to buy brands for function and performance only.”
Following Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, we’ve experienced the phenomenon of “post-truth politics”, where appeals to emotion (literally) trump factual rebuttals. Les Binet and Peter Field’s work for the IPA also demonstrates that emotional campaigns tend to outperform rational ones, creating stronger memories amongst a much broader audience. We cannot make rational decisions without our emotions concurring.
Another lesson to be learnt from recent political events is the importance of media-created perceptions in shaping actual lived experiences. The parts of the UK that experienced the lowest levels of immigration were also those most likely to have voted “leave” in the EU referendum. The higher unemployment levels and disenchantment felt by the individuals in those areas were mistakenly perceived to be the effect of rising immigration. What residents saw and read in the media shaped their subjective experiences, even though they didn’t witness or experience the effects directly. Reality was secondary to what they felt.
Finally, while the physical experience of the product or service does play a role in driving choice, that experience is often akin to habitual autopilot consumption, as seen in the famous Sainsbury’s example of sleepshopping in the planning of “Try Something New Today”. The more seamless, the less noticed, and ultimately the less meaningful the experience.
So where does this leave brand communications?
1.Build a coherent whole.
Communications and usage are not exclusive, they are combinatory, so follow King’s advice and regard the brand as “a coherent totality, not a lot of bits”. This means thinking wide and long, conceptually and tangibly, simultaneously and sequentially when planning a brand and how it interacts with people. In a world where everything is connected, this becomes more important than ever to avoid the trap of fractured disciplines producing isolated assets.
2.Not all experiences are equal
Consider the level of actual interaction with the product and how influential it is in driving perceptions and choice. For some categories, such as FMCG, people may not be sufficiently involved in using the product to generate much meaning and preference, so communications should work harder to define how to build feelings towards the brand. In contrast, high-involvement categories like airlines can be potentially more reliant on the experience of the service itself, so marketers must be more alert to the role their comms play and the promises they make.
3.Over-personalise at your peril
Whilst there are opportunities to personalise communications to make them and the brand more relevant and “just for me”, choices are rarely made in a vacuum. Things and people are desirable because they are desired by others, trusted by others, believed in by others, so consider how to cultivate their shared and symbolic meanings whether as a sign of good parenting to be recommended on a local Facebook group, a signal of taste worn to a date in a gallery, or a statement of experience on a sports pitch.
4.Go beyond seamless experiences
Getting the consumer to click “pay now” is ultimately necessary, but in designing and building the total experience of a brand, priming the person to become a user and ideally an advocate, consider the way people should feel before, during and after the experience. Seamlessness is a necessary but often not contingent condition for success when designing user experience.
5.Design open ideas for the consumer
Whilst having a coherent story for a brand remains vital, the authority of promises once portrayed in TV ads has been eroded in favour of a more accessible two-way dialogue between user and brand. So, when designing communications, ensure that they allow gaps for consumers to enter, to take part, follow up, have their say and share.