CREATING POSITIVE FRICTION
Why brand experiences shouldn’t be seamless
The rules of the game have changed. Anyone who stewards a brand today could be forgiven for waking up most mornings fearing a possible brand crisis. With each consumer now a journalist of their own daily interactions, one negative or unpleasant experience can leave a very public mark against a brand.
To satisfy this new army of critics, the role of marketers has taken on a more comprehensive remit. It is now about managing the entire brand experience – in other words, anything and everything that could influence a person’s perception; evermore morphing into a rather big and somewhat chest-tightening task.
And it’s not made any easier when what people claim to want might be the very thing that might make you extinct. “Frictionless”, that buzziest of buzzwords, has fast become a commodity of the “experience economy” – the goal most marketers are shooting for. It’s a mutually shared ambition potentially leading to mutually assured obsolescence.
In all fairness, it’s not an entirely misguided effort. Underpinned by a hazardous combination of heightened consumer expectations and decreasing levels of patience, brands feel obliged to provide “seamless” and “efficient” consumer experiences, with the obsession (and the chances of realizing it) only amplified by technology. Yet, here’s the paradox: to the logical mind, an effortless experience makes total sense. Reframed, it’s just plain boring.
When each brand offers the same, the opportunity to differentiate is designed out. The consumer experience becomes purely transactional, and entirely forgettable in the process. Price excluded, it becomes harder to distinguish one hotel, airline or restaurant from another.
To defy this race to the bottom, marketers must embrace their brand as being the most powerful weapon at their disposal, for it makes it possible to transcend the transaction and create the meaningful. Achieving that requires building what might be termed “positive friction” into brand experiences. It might seem counterintuitive, but only if friction is conflated with frustration.
The reality is that performance and functionality must remain the backbone of every experience (get the basics wrong and no amount of gloss will help), but it must not be the sole objective. Instead, it should provide a solid platform on which to construct a more emotionally engaging journey – one that includes moments of surprise, not in the guise of grand gestures, but of little delights. Consider the warm chocolate chip cookie each guest is given upon check-in at a Hilton DoubleTree. In theory, it is an absurdly impractical idea (messy fingers, bags to carry, white shirt), and yet people love it. The conclusion is that consumers will forgive for the unforgettable.
Here’s the added complication though – to be most productive, those moments need to be carefully selected and always be in service of your brand. Think useful, not nice. That means starting with the purpose that sits at the heart of what you do and finding ways to bring it to life in a differentiated and unexpected way. Often the most memorable moments are the ones that catch your resting expectations off guard. The “always personal” Conrad Hotel puts a teddy bear in each room – clichéd, but comforting. The “great coffee for everyone” BlueBottle hand-pours a mass order of drip coffees: slow, but sophisticated.
Going forward, all brands must take the time to map out their customer journey more strategically in order to pinpoint moments of disproportionate impact, and then work out how to enhance those aspects of the experience in a truly relevant way. Much like a detective looking for clues, the challenge is to decide which moments present real opportunities to demonstrate the brand ethos or value proposition, and which should simply pass by unnoticed.