Brand experience by design

Brand experience is quickly becoming a mainline into improving NPS and a brand’s valuation, writes Karl Treacher.

Article theme badge DesignIn front of me is an unfortunate mess. A client’s brand strategy document created by their former agency – a very large agency that was shown the door soon after delivering this… ambitious ‘creative’ strategy. Some of the thinking is quite good; however, one small problem exists: strategic concepts and plans appear to ignore audience insights. As is often the case in both marketing and advertising, the people working on the problem or challenge assumed the customer/audience/user is just like them, with the same knowledge and view of the world. They aren’t.

The same misstep is surprisingly common when designing branded experiences. With a wealth of knowledge in customers and channel innovation, marketers can still tend to see these things in ‘digital versus traditional’ or ‘most valuable customer’ segmentation. Adding to this, at the moment many agencies are focusing too much on new ad-tech in delivering brand experiences. For a very long time, psychology (and common sense) has taught us that other humans (read: customers) don’t see it this way. Even Harvard Business Review agrees: “According to behavioural scientists, when people recall an experience, they don’t remember every single moment of it (unless the experience was short and traumatic). Instead, they recall a few significant moments vividly and gloss over the others – people remember snapshots, not movies. And they carry away an overall assessment of the experience that’s based on three factors: the trend in the sequence of pain or pleasure, the high and low points, and the ending.”

Given that today’s customers are clearly not choosing brands based on advertising communication alone, the better marketers have been busily designing customer experiences in alignment with their brand’s identity. Unfortunately, in some organisations ‘brand’ is considered ‘something to do with marketing’ – and as such has had no role in customer experience design. In my view, this is the same as riding a horse on a freeway: embarrassingly inefficient and overtly backward.

Let’s use of the example of one of Australia’s favourite customer-stranding, brand experience-starving, flag-carrying brands: Qantas. Or, as I’ve referred to it previously, the Flying Kangaroo… ted. Most pundits have focused comments and analysis on Qantas’ inscrutable decision to keep (empty) seat capacity flying in order to maintain 65% domestic market share. Two services for every one Virgin put up. Across the airline industry, according to News Corp, this meant the equivalent of 12 empty jumbos in the air over Australia – per day. In the face of falling demand on falling demand, this position was finally abandoned in April 2014.

Meanwhile, Virgin Australia set its corporate and government segment target at 20% in 2010; it currently holds 25%. It’s revised that target to 30% by 2017.

In FY2004, Qantas had 30.5% market share of international travel to and from Australia. Virgin had none, Emirates had 4.3%. Figures from FY2014 show that Qantas’ market share of international travel to and from Australia is now 16.4% (almost halved in 10 years). Virgin has taken 7.1% and Emirates has grown to 9.5%.

Some people may argue that the reason for defection from Qantas is simply price. This is obviously not the case, because the prices of the full-service airlines trail each other relatively closely. The cost-conscious consumer may choose a budget airline like AirAsia, Jetstar, Scoot or Tigerair – and they do. Those airlines hold 15.5% of the international market.

In these commercial conditions, without a service story beyond a domestic business-class refresh, Qantas has reinvested in marketing with an admittedly very good piece of communications, ‘Feels like Home’, from Neil Lawrence. However, tellingly, it leverages the homesickness Australians feel on seeing the Qantas tail fin emblazoned with the famous kangaroo at foreign airports, and the emotional moments of coming home. There is nothing to do with the Qantas customer experience, product or service. Media commentators have seen the bad news story through every variation of maintaining that self-imposed 65% domestic market share – oil prices, carbon tax repeal, union-busting, the spurned heir apparent (John Borghetti, CEO of Virgin Australia) etc. Everything possible to avoid the taboo of calling out the facts: a previously badly-aged fleet, poor service and a completely ignored customer experience. Yet all of this is on display in a quick scan of customer reviews – try

All is not lost, however, as the refreshed domestic business-class product certainly found media space prior to Qantas’ reinvestment in marketing. The consequent awareness and consideration could in fact have opened a very large door for Qantas through its actual product. A door that leads to preference and loyalty… and a stronger share price. You only need to peer over the fence to see the proof – Virgin’s investment and consequent gains in rebranding, fleet, service, lounges and digital experience etc. In short, it’s a carefully designed branded customer experience focusing on controlling as much of the airport experience as possible and inviting customers into the brand. This is evidenced by its kerbside ‘premium entry’ and seasonal services such as ‘Hat Valet,’ shoe-shining and blow-dries for the Spring Racing Carnival.

If your brand has met all the hygiene criteria in customer experience and you’re looking for easy wins to demonstrate value in branded customer experience, go to your customer episode maps (develop some, if you haven’t already) and identify touch points with high emotional peaks or potential for brand defection. These are your headline-winning, social media-shaking, customer-delighting opportunities to wow… and, more importantly, grow.

An interesting and creative example of this comes from the unlikely sector of FMCG. In order to help customers combat moments of high emotional tension in alignment with its brand, Kit Kat gave Amsterdammers an opportunity to ‘Have a Break’ with free No WiFi Zones – a five-metre radius where signals were blocked, encouraging people to put down their devices and reconnect with real life.

If you’re just embarking on the journey from (a) customer experience design to (b) branded customer experience design, here are a few pointers:

  • Customer episodes begin at any (and every) touch point,
  • there are five senses shaping your customers’ branded experience – don’t be restricted to vision and hearing alone,
  • use data and test the hell out of every brand experience,
  • build for the wearable tech future,
  • iterate and evolve, and
  • keep social sharing in mind throughout the design phase; after all, who doesn’t want free (and very potent) viral marketing?

Brand experience is quickly becoming a mainline into improving the net promoter score (NPS) and a brand’s valuation. This, in turn, strongly influences shareholder perception. Brand experience design is now a core competency for all marketers, particularly those needing to quickly build commercial confidence in non-marketing organisations. So if you’re a marketer who loves a ‘comms strategy’ but avoids brand experience strategy, it’s time to review your career strategy.

Karl Treacher
BY Karl Treacher ON 19 May 2015
Chief executive of The Brand Institute of Australia, a behavioural analyst
with more than 15 years of brand consultancy experience and a pioneer of organisational branding and culture alignment. Tweet at him using @treacher.