The language we use to explain successful customer experiences is always the same: “cool,” “captivating,” “convenient,” “premium.” But a look into other fields and the big design lab suggests that there is much more than meets the eye.
Consider physics. In 1933, a Swiss astronomer named Fritz Zwicky made an interesting discovery when calculating the mass of a galaxy cluster named the Cosizema cluster. He found that Cosizema had four-hundred times more mass than it should have based on his observations. And he realized that the galaxies in the cluster moved too fast to be held together by the visible matter alone.
Zwicky’s observations would change our understanding of the universe forever. Dark matter roughly constitutes 84% of total mass while dark energy plus dark matter constitute 95% of total mass-energy content. Almost everything around us is invisible.
Now marketplace astronomers are not concerned with with mass but with meaning. Yet, similar principles seem to apply. Together with my colleagues Katja Brunk and Ben Hartmann I am currently studying a customer experience equivalent to black dwarfs: brands originally created during the cold war in the German Democratic Republic.
From a conventional perspective, now that capitalism has won, these brands should long be dead. But for almost one third of Germans today, they shine brighter than their Western counterparts. In the soft drink segment, for example, the dominant brand in the East is not Coke or Pepsi but Vita Cola. Spee is bigger than Persil. And Nutella's got nothing on Nudossi.
How is this possible? Conventional marketing approaches don’t even account for their existence. The next best thing we have is the idea of retro experiences - old brands that marketers have cleverly re-“cooled.” Think Volkswagen Beetle.
But like Swiss astronomer Zwicky, we ran into problems explaining the discrepancy between these meanings of “cool” and the actual meanings that drive their success. We also didn’t know what to make of the fact that, in many cases, there wasn’t even a clever marketer in the picture. So who or what really holds these experiences together?
Going back to physics, one problem with dark matter and dark energy is that we cannot see them. However, astronomers have found ways to prove their existence at least indirectly. For instance, when light from an object that’s far away from earth travels towards an observer bends but there is nothing visible in between the object and the observer, the likely explanation for this gravitational lens effect is dark matter.
And that’s exactly how we cracked the Eastern brand experience mystery: a “cool” customer experience is not always designed by marketers. Most of what makes a customer experience great doesn't meet the eye. You cannot see, smell, or taste it. Here, it is shaped by an invisible political force - dark energy set free or matter created in the aftermath of one political system (capitalism) winning over another (communism).
Why does this insight matter to customer experience designers? Because they need ways to identify dark matter where it exists and the tools to shape and channel it. So next time you say that Starbucks is a convenient premium coffee experience, think again because you may have missed 95% of the picture.