We’ve been hearing about “experiential marketing” and the “experience economy,” but what does it really mean to design a truly great customer experience? Here’s what we’ve learned.
The best place to start is to revisit what we know about traditional marketing. Traditional marketing tends to be based on needs and wants. As such, it values functional features and benefits and often operates under the belief that consumers are rational information processors, who make rational purchase decisions.
Customer experience design on the other hand, is based on desires and emotions. It focuses on the possibility of creating needs, enabling irrational choices and making something indispensable to a consumer’s identity. Marketers who are experience designers believe that consumers want to live and experience, that they feel and rely on their senses, have deeply rooted desires and that they focus on dialogue and sharing. As such, contrary to what we might believe, designing an experience is not necessarily about the product or service itself at all. It is actually about programming the world around us. It’s about fostering four types of values: emotional, identity, embodied, and political, all of which allow a brand to operate at a more existential level.
We’ve learned that marketers have to actively seek out emotions that their brands can leverage. The stronger and more relevant the emotion, the better. This is important because the brand that manages emotions most effectively will always win as the most rational choice. Marketers must remember, however, that emotions do not exist in a cultural vacuum — they are extracted from various societal events and contexts.
Take Napster and Red Bull as an example. Red Bull successfully extracted and leveraged emotions that surrounded Napster’s rebellious innovation and that of its founder, Shawn Fanning. When Napster emerged in 1999, Fanning had become one of our innovative heroes who pushed the boundaries of music consumption and forever changed the face of music downloading. At the same time, he was also the face of controversy and legal/ethical uproar in the music industry. This meant that he was not only an innovative hero but an innovative rebel-hero. Some were angry with him and others were in love with him. He was the talk of the day and emotions were abundant.
Red Bull injected itself in the middle of it all by inviting Fanning to endorse its product, at which point it exploded in the market.
This has much to do with the social world. It’s about making your brand indispensable and critical to the consumer’s identity. Traditional marketing tends to believe that the brand owner has full control of their brand’s identity and that they alone define what that identity might be. Yet this is not true. Identity value is co-created through the complex interactions of many agents among whom a brand owner plays merely a single part. The co-creation of a brand identity happens among brand owners, bloggers, activists, celebrities, scientists, consumers, journalists and the like. It is then in the marketer’s hands to interact with these agents in a way that produces the most desired identity.
Think of when marketers shift emotional branding gears in order to eliminate negative brand images. Take Botox Cosmetics by Allergan Inc. as an example. When the product first launched in 2002, its identity was founded upon “Pleasurable Play,” something that women would get together and do for fun. Then agents interacted to co-create a Doppelganger brand image, soon transforming the Botox identity into “Poison” that kills you. Allergan then shifted gears and responded with a new identity founded upon the “Miracle of Medicine” with a health and vitality spin. But as the cycle goes on, agents interact again to co-create another Doppelganger brand image of “Frozen Face” while Allergan re-maneuvers yet again with another adjusted identity, “Expression Enabler.”
It is through these clever co-creations and the re-maneuvering of the Botox brand identity with various agents that Allergan was able to convince consumers that a cosmetic injection to the face was the most needed, normal and rational thing in the world.
Technology matters, but what makes a specific technology matter more to consumers? For the experience designer, technology is not an end in itself. They inject it with stories that allow people to lead more morally righteous, empowered and upright lives, just as the Apple Watch has done. This technology has taken on a strong narrative to “provide all the motivation you need to sit less, move more, and get some exercise… So you can live a better day and a healthier life.” This narrative then leads consumers to feelings of empowerment and moral righteousness by being a part of the positive, responsible, healthy-living bandwagon. This is no different than how we feel after participating in the ALS ice bucket challenge or saving energy during Earth Hour. It’s about attaching your product to a moral value that consumers feel compelled to embody.
We’ve learned that political value is when a brand holds some form of deep moral conflict and is able to operate as a mediator between two opposing camps, using that disparity and tension to their advantage. Let’s take the Hummer as an example. Its adversaries attack the vehicle, believing it represents wasteful and excessive consumption. Hummer enthusiasts, on the other hand, respond by bolstering the ideology of “American Exceptionalism” and portray criticisms as un-American values.
By responding this way, Hummer enthusiasts feel they are defending national values, beliefs, and consequently receive moral validation in the process. The result? They forge a deeper and greater connection with the brand, desiring to protect it because protecting it means protecting their own ideologies and moral values. This is exactly the effect of designing brands that can, in some form, represent strong, politically and morally conflicting values.
It should not come as a surprise that all examples above share many similarities. Their journeys and the impacts of their journeys foster and touch upon all four values to varying degrees. They demonstrate that customer experience design is based on desires and emotions, that the emotional consumer is co-created by many agents, that through emotional conditioning we must make our brand or product the most normal, rational offering that’s taken for granted. William Shakespeare said it best: “All the world’s a stage.” And in our stage, we’ve learned that we can design a truly great customer experience only by enabling a brand to foster emotional, identity, embodied, and political values.
Charlene Precious Tcheong is a student in Markus Giesler's Customer Experience Design MBA elective course at the Schulich School of Business.