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Rebalancing The Brand Experience

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A couple of months ago, Adrienne Bateup-Carlson sent me this op-ed by Roger Cohen. In it, Cohen laments the plasticization of experience. “The question of genuine, undiluted experience has been on my mind,” he writes. “Germans have a good word for something authentic: “echt.” We have an echt deficit these days. Everything seems filtered, monitored, marshaled, ameliorated, graded and app-ready — made into a kind of branded facsimile of experience for easier absorption. The thrill of the unexpected is lost … We demand shortcuts, as if there are shortcuts to genuine experience.”

Anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of a fast-food “service experience” can sympathize. The greetings are anonymous, the requests generic, the answers pat, the actions either physically or mentally automated. This is life on rote, experience in a box. It feels as sincere as the latest apology for downtown traffic delays, the “Thanks for waiting” message from the telco customer service team and the reassurances from an insurer that they will “gladly” pay up in the event of a claim.

It often happens because experience is acknowledged but unowned by the people most responsible for brands. In an article earlier this year, Nigel Hollis was astonished to discover that, according to Forrester Research and Heidrick & Struggles, most CMOs are not responsible for customer service and support or in-store/branch training. “That seems crazy to me,” he observes. “ … If the CMO is charged with developing positive brand perceptions and value, then they should at least have control over the most important elements of the brand experience.”

Completely agree.

The case for experiences, and more particularly, designed experiences makes sense. As The Blake Project’s Thomson Dawson has argued, “Design and the process of “design thinking” has added billions of dollars worth of market capitalization to those enterprises that understand its significant power and higher purpose to engage and delight customers in ways never before possible. In every leading company, design has become the soul of enterprise strategy … You don’t have to look very far to see brands that apply this principle with phenomenal results – Apple, Nike, Starbucks, Google, Patagonia, BMW, Herman Miller, Target, Gillette, Virgin – every one of these enterprises are absolute fanatics about design and its importance to their business strategy.”

So, on the one hand, we have experiences that are so patterned and explicit that they are meaningless. On the other, design has a huge role to play in adding value for customers. What’s the optimal mix? It’s something I have been talking a lot about lately: the need to actively resolve the tension between process and personalization; to chart a reasonable and human course between the need for brands to lock down deliverables so that they can identify and measure them, at the same time as they avoid doing what Cohen is so incensed by – formulating encounters to the point where all the humanity and authenticity has been sucked out of them.

My thinking is this. The vast majority of any customer experience still needs to be pre-designed (and therefore generic). That’s because any experience at any customer touchpoint must align with a plethora of systems and procedures – health and safety, ops, security, booking systems etc. Customer themselves also require a high level of consistency. They want to know that a lot of things will happen the way they expect them to happen: that the booking system will work; that their key will be ready; that they will have the seat they were assigned; that there won’t be someone else or someone else’s anything for that matter in their room … Those are not situations in which spontaneity will be expected, or welcomed.

The difference though won’t be decided there. All of that hard work will get brands to a point of parity.

The difference will come in the 10 – 20% that distinguishes the highly served from the also-served. It will focus almost exclusively on the human-to-human aspects of the experience:

1. Personality – how service is delivered and processes are executed, whether it’s with  cheekiness, care, fun, familiarity or indulgence, adds humanity to interactions.

2. Recognition – how successfully and individually customers are identified and their needs anticipated decides the extent to which each experience feels tailored, specific and to some extent unrepeatable. This is about much more than just loyalty schemes or knowing someone’s name. It springs from an (appropriate!) interest in their beliefs, priorities and situation, and a working knowledge of their history with the brand. Done right, this feels helpful and respectful, not invasive.

3. Speed – no surprises here. Rapid delivery makes customers feel prioritized and that a brand has  ‘dropped everything’ to attend to them. Not something to do all the time, but on occasions, the ability to act decisively and precisely to avert a problem or answer a need can generate ongoing loyalty.

4. Delight/surprise – everyone wants to feel special.

5. Exclusivity – recognition taken as far as it goes. When delight/surprise is blended with singularity, the experience can be both flattering at the time and share-able with many others later.

And where should we take our prompts from for that vital personalization? Since it was Adrienne who first alerted me to Cohen’s article, I thought I’d leave the last word on rebalancing the customer experience to her. “As we look to create customer experiences that are pre-designed yet authentic, consistent yet individuated, relevant and resonant – consider how we re-think our fundamental assumptions in the way we approach the consumer. 

“To quote Will.i.am in Wired UK August 2013: : “forget the consumer! Consumer is a bad thing to call people. Tomorrow the word will be more like ‘champion’. People have to champion your brand, not just consumer. They add value making you relevant.’ Now there’s a thought. While the customer experience must indeed be intentional and therefore designed, perhaps we should be doing it with others. The brand champions of our future.”

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