A brand is not an experience

The brand is not the experience, writes Sergio Brodsky, arguing that it’s important to instead recognise the role brands play as enablers of experiences, and the role of media as experiential frames of reference.

 

Experience has been one of the most popular buzzwords in the strategic communications industry in recent years. However, having a brand experience is not something new. In fact, the marketing of sensations goes back quite a few centuries in history. Some of the world’s early forms of currency – salt in ancient Rome or cocoa beans among the Aztecs – gained value precisely because they provided highly desirable and prestigious sensations.

Ancient and medieval markets were experienced as sites of sensory abundance, full of exciting sights, savours, scents, sounds and textures. However, it is in the shops of the 18th century that we can locate the beginnings of modern consumer culture and the drive for commercial ‘sense appeal’.

The fundamental difference was that shopping was now conducted indoors rather than in open stalls or marketplaces, meaning that the experience happened through real-time interactions within the limits of walls and fixtures and the finiteness of a purchase.

As stores expanded their wares and size of their premises in the 19th century they eventually became department stores like Le Bon Marché in Paris, Harrods in London and Macy’s in New York, mimicking the most opulent and prestigious of settings: the palace. The grandiose façades, luxurious fittings and clerks as polite, unobtrusive servants the ‘olde-worlde’ experience of those brands certainly create unique memories, yet, once you’re out the door the dream is over.

During most of the 20th century, and in particular after the Second World War, a greater focus on price and convenience gave birth to the big-box stores. Brands like Walmart, Carrefour and Tesco understood that modern new lifestyles required practicality. From shopping bags to car trunks, utilitarian design aligned to cost-effectiveness characterise big-box retail brands – ugly but cheap.

That is when the shopping experience is turned upside-down, from tyrannic brand guidelines to the crowning of consumers, the medium becomes the message. The message (or brand) becomes more generic, since price, durability and performance are the new competitive grounds.

From the 1980s and into the 21st century, brands have become a lot more tangible with more available touch points and greater transparency. New contexts demand new content, putting brand and media on common grounds. The design of brands had to become simpler in order to fit in ever-smaller screens, but their narratives became more impactful to captivate their constantly distracted audiences. Digital, physical and social dimensions are gradually converging to enable more holistic and inclusive interactions. The consumer never felt so close.

With the advance of technology, consumer psychology and a new type of economy where consuming means sharing and creating, the experience is no longer about our senses but synapses in our brains. From neuroscientists to big data ‘mathemagicians’, everyone is trying to better understand more about mental triggers and turn them into super-effective algorithms.

This is an incredibly exciting time for brands and those designing or consuming them. With this in mind, the first thing to recognise is that the brand is not the experience. The brand enables the experience, but is not the experience.

The experience is imaginary. An experience with no underlying media is the dream of artificial reality, not brands. Thus, in a world of constant flux the media we use become our experiential frames of reference and the most defining factors when building a brand’s equity.

In the old days it used to be that big media would define big brands just as much as innovative media inform innovative brands. Today, digital media tend to start their lives as platforms and together with the consumer develop an experience that will then define the brand. Thus, the brand experience is no longer confined to physical or virtual shops – it lives and nourishes itself in our minds.

Take for example, Farfetch, an online marketplace that brings independent fashion boutiques from Europe and North America under one roof, or website. Because of its hyper-selective ranges, it transcended from being just an ecommerce platform to become the ‘curator of curators’, where stories about curatorship and how the consumer can embody this value turned a business into a brand.

The same can be said about Netflix. It began as a platform to streamline digital content that matured to become a ‘control brand’ that is now subverting the controlling aspects of TV broadcasting in a very disruptive way.

Therefore, knowing where, when and in what mood the consumer will be becomes the most powerful strategic tool a marketer can have. And, media agencies are ahead of the curve when it comes to brand building, business profitability and even influencing creative work.

The idea of a ‘big idea’ and the reality of ‘big-egoed’ creative directors may need to get a bit more familiar with media’s consumer insights, technology and data. This is because no matter how big an idea it cannot live in the vacuum. But, it could thrive in the right contexts. As insightfully said by JR Little, VP and regional head of strategy and intelligence, General Motors Europe, we are now witnessing the rise of the global creative media agencies.

Therefore, think in beta terms. Keep your brand promise relatively loose. Try to understand first where your brand’s value-add is perceived to then crystalise it in terms of a ‘consumer-generated big idea’, this way steering clear from esoteric brand promises. In other words, talk to your media partner first, because they will have the most robust data, insight and knowledge about which platforms will enable your brand a relevant experience.

Before entering the 22nd century, brand owners must review their brand playbooks and start replacing dictionary definitions with experience definitions. From descriptive words to directional controls. We must start thinking in terms of commands so behavioural patterns can be identified and transform consumption to creation and desire to experience.

 

Sérgio Brodsky
BY Sérgio Brodsky ON 19 August 2014
Sérgio Brodsky is an internationally experienced brand marketing professional having worked for some of the world's greatest strategic communications agencies. Sérgio is a proven thought-leader, speaking at industry events, lecturing and regularly being published worldwide. He is passionate about cities and culture and the role of brands and technology in society. Sérgio is multilingual and holds a BA in IP law and an MBA in global brand strategy and innovation. Follow him on Twitter: @brandKzar.