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Warning to Marketers: Break Your Addiction to Storytelling

Warning to Marketers: Break Your Addiction to Storytelling

Russ Klein

experience design new imperative

I recently read an interesting article written by Avi Dan​, an individual for whom I have great respect. He wrote about the changing landscape and ambiguity around what the 21st century creative agency should look like.

He cites the shrinking, razor-thin margins many agencies can command for their creativity. My view is that it’s not merely creativity that clients are becoming increasingly unwilling to pay for; it’s whether the so-called creativity is being placed against high-yield business solutions that can change the trajectory of a business. I’m here to disabuse all marketers of the idea that the client community needs more artful or emotional storytelling.


Agencies and marketers alike are addicted to storytelling. The advent of so-called content marketing has been the equivalent of a speedball coursing through the craving veins of marketers who think every problem can be solved by telling a better story. Soon they are going to miss a window of opportunity that will quickly end up in someone else’s portfolio. If marketers and agencies don’t come to terms in a hurry with the structural factors that have set the stage for experience-driven brand building, CEOs are going to tap other resources to do it instead. Experience design is the next frontier for brand-building.

Why should you be worried?

The old mathematical representation of a brand in the predigital, pre-social media era was Brand = Promise + Experience. Unfortunately, marketers were too focused on the promise-making, and too frequently promise-breaking, until the customer began demanding more, including a co-creation role in content. Out with that old formula. My new mathematical expression of a brand (below) simply means that a brand can be built on experience alone without the use of storytelling.

Conversely, a brand cannot be built on story alone. No experience, no brand. Storytelling can add power to great experience design, or if it’s lousy, diminish it. Great experience design inspires more authentic and compelling storytelling.

If marketers, and agencies, don’t jump on experience design, they will lose the direct responsibility for it just as they abdicated sales, customer service, business intelligence, pricing, supply chain and distribution because those disciplines weren’t sexy enough or cool enough to appreciate the creativity that’s been spun up since WWII. But open your eyes! In the average American enterprise, only 40% of marketing activity is under the direct authority of marketing!

The question is whether marketers and their agencies can acquire the talent and skill sets necessary to be great at experience design. Whether they do or don’t, the function will become the most treasured marketing capability for any and every brand.

Experience design spares people the effort traditionally needed to enjoy your product or service, with a bias toward removing friction while elegantly layering in relevant enhancements. It is a combination of disciplines: design thinking and decision science, intentionally applied to the lives of people. Experience design is probably not what you think it is. (Katherine N. Lemon & Peter C. Verhoef authored an excellent paper for the Journal of Marketing​ on the history of experience design and how it has emerged in importance.) Experience design is not only customer service, service recovery or digital phenomenon (despite the term “user experience” being coined by Apple in 1993).

World-class experience design:

  • Is intentional.
  • Is human-centered.
  • Feels like a story worth telling/is indivisible from storytelling.
  • Is remarkable/unforgettable/shareable.
  • Is relevant and differentiating.
  • Is coherent/repeatable/systematic/cultural.
  • Is omni-channel and seamless with no dead ends.
  • Has fastidious attention to detail.​

More people describe their experience with a brand than the product or price. More than 80% of consumers would pay 25% more to ensure a superior experience! More than 80% of consumers will stop doing business due to bad experiences with a business. And nearly 80% of consumers share bad experiences; warning others, discouraging others, venting about their negative experience with brands. The performance data behind firms who take an intentional approach to experience design is clear. Happier customers. Higher retention. More profitable.

Most people will accept a replacement product or refund. They are utterly unwilling to relive a poor experience. 

Russ Klein is a five-time award-winning CMO who has quarterbacked teams for many of the world’s foremost brand names, serving as president of Burger King from 2003-2010 and holding top marketing and advertising posts at Dr. Pepper/7UP Companies, Gatorade, 7-Eleven Corporation and Arby’s Restaurant Group. He is also the former CEO of the American Marketing Association.