Times of change present opportunities for change. Don’t miss your moment.
As the saying goes, “Life has never been this fast before, and it will never be this slow again.” In an era where entire market paradigms continue to be up-ended by a global pandemic, throwing into question the nature of basic interpersonal relationships—let alone consumer relationships with brands—this notion is as relevant as ever. When the future is uncertain, the best you can do is position yourself in a way that serves you best across the range of possible futures. Times of change present the best opportunity for change, and there is no better place to start than with how you think about brand experience.
Human Experience First
More than a year into a global pandemic, volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity remain extremely high. Even the foundational assumptions brands could previously make about relationships, the structure of work and education, or the physical organization of our space on a societal level are thrown into question as we look to the next 3-5 years. Your approach to positioning your brand for the future might take many forms. But no matter how you think about the future, it is clear that putting humans and their long-term experiences at the center of your brand’s model of the world is a smart and generally effective way of ensuring your place in an unknown, unknowable future.
In reality, as hard as it is to operationalize a human-centric approach to the way your organization is run and your brand manifests itself, investing in these as foundational values has been proven to have significant returns—especially when done in an economic downturn. Vision gained from investigation of consumer behaviors that transcend the day-to-day can be a counter to volatility. Collaboration beyond individuals’ functional expertise can result in understanding that balances uncertainty. Clarity derived from consumer insights highlights which strategic initiatives to explore or evolve, and serves to counteract complexity. And a start-small approach with a focus on behavioral outcomes and rapid evolution can help to institutionalize agility as a counter to ambiguity.
What Comes Next?
How do we move from here to there? The common existing paradigm is that brands are able to segment their approach into narrow specialized initiatives that would limit stress and investment by transferring the responsibility of designing interactions to agencies with deep knowledge in their area. In theory, the best group to understand a target’s social media interaction is a team of social media experts who could infinitely subdivide your target, tactics or areas of focus. But this leads us to a trap created by the analogical reasoning that is so easy to fall into after continued success in a narrow area. It colors and influences the way that we approach a problem and limits the tools that we can bring to bear in solving it. People approach problems from the standpoint of their own experiences. So digital marketers think about experience through the lens of digital—distinct from the way an advertising agency or management strategy consultant might think about experience.
However, when the foundational question of how a brand ought to be experienced is baked into the company writ large, it allows for experience strategy to radiate out to all initiatives across categories. This becomes a natural extension of brand value rather than something to try to infuse into tactics post hoc. Brand experience should not be different depending on one’s point of contact with the brand and needs to be unified and consistent. The best way to ensure this is to make the consideration of brand experience a core part of the culture of your organization. This can be done without significant pain or expense.
Start by setting an aspirational target aligned with the brand promise. It doesn’t take too much—a couple of executive workshops, for example—to align on the goal of being more human-centric and to set a target, benchmarks and timeline for achieving it. Often, making this decision to be deliberately focused is enough to kick-start people to think in this new way. Define a value-driven experience aspiration and link it to an expected behavior change. This link between desired behavior and financials changes the conversation because the focus shifts to which experiences will lead to the desired behavior—and create the desired value—even as needs evolve.
Next, create a sense of what success looks like. Build momentum by launching a lighthouse project where it would be possible to show results with minimal investment. These small successes can create excitement and support for subsequent projects. The learnings from these preliminary, low-investment projects can help to prove out processes and can be quickly scaled up across multiple experiences until one becomes the model throughout the enterprise.
Last, work to integrate consumer insights into your approach to begin building a database of information. Once this database grows a bit, it can be used to guide investment strategies, identify trends and psychographic profiles, and help to shape the choices about how and where the brand can evolve as the data shows changes in behavior over time. This data serves to identify opportunities and validate past initiatives by tracking how actions and attitudes evolve beyond just NPS (net promoter scores) and other cursory superficial measures.
Take Starbucks, a brand-experience-driven organization whose initiatives revolve around people and their behaviors. After a change in focus away from experiences, revenue dropped nearly 30% in two years. In 2008, Starbucks shifted back to an experience focus. This priority was enshrined in their new mission, “To inspire and nurture the human spirit—one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” Since then, Starbucks has used brand localization to assimilate the aesthetic and attitudes of its stores to different geographies. The company has responded to constantly changing behaviors around convenience by adapting its drive-thru experience and innovating on its digital rewards program, while creating upscale Reserve Roasteries for customers not prioritizing convenience. As a result of its loyal core, Starbucks can easily pilot new programs addressing different attitudes—think “My Starbucks Idea” and more recently gamifying its digital experience with Bonus Star Bingo promotions, allowing loyalty members to play games and earn points toward purchases.
Brands can learn from Starbucks and use every single audience channel and touchpoint as an opportunity to engage, excite and entangle to build affinity and advocacy. All it takes is an organizational priority to discover and prioritize the points where an audience’s desires and a brand’s goals intersect. If you want to be remembered, be memorable. If you want to become a valuable part of people’s lives, be memorable in consistent, brand-appropriate ways across a range of touchpoints so that each element or aspect eventually triggers a reference to the entirety of the brand and its values beyond what currently exists.