Brand Experience and Why it Matters

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1.0 Problem

Brands are big business, and yet the proliferation of new options for digital media and the cluttering of said space make it more challenging than ever to have your brand remembered. Many progressive companies are augmenting their traditional advertising and marketing with a greater focus on engaging brand experiences.

The purpose of this white paper is to present a perspective on brand experience as a necessary requirement for strengthening your brand. It is by no means unique, as many of the sources credited here have similar views. However, for the average marketing or business leader who may have a different view of branding, we hope this alternative model provides value.

2.0 What is a Brand?

The term “brand” arose because in the past ranchers used an identifying mark burned on livestock with a branding iron to identify ownership. The term has evolved from meaning a simple mark to meaning a complete representation of a product, service or company. In the fifties and sixties, the view of branding was that it was something the company controlled. In recent years there has been a shift to a more abstract view of brand, in that the brand is not something the company controls but rather the impression of the company that exists within the minds of the public. Here is one modern definition of what a brand is:

Every brand exists in the minds of its audience – customers and potential customers. One by one, they decide whether an organization is ethical or unethical, responsive or rude, progressive or conservative, caring or cold, authentic or fake. Their collective perception determines whether it is dynamic or boring, honest or deceitful, approachable or closed, and so on.[i]

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, says it more simply: “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.” Given this, it’s obvious that a brand is more than a logo, slogan, mascot or jingle. Simply changing a logo doesn’t make an organization different today than it was yesterday. A brand goes much deeper.

We live in a world where it matters less what the business wants its audiences to believe and more what people actually do believe. People form opinions based on the experience and interactions they or their peers have had. Every touch point is a moment of truth, and actions that are misaligned with what an organization claims it stands for are at risk in the court of public opinion.

Difference between Branding & Advertising

Branding is a strategic activity. Advertising is one tactical method of executing the brand strategy (it’s not the only one). Advertising is actively promoting a product or service. It’s pushing out a message to get sales results: “Buy our product because it’s better than theirs.” Advertising may contribute to a brand, but the brand is bigger than any particular promotional effort.

The fundamentals of marketing can no longer be relied upon to provide a sustainable competitive advantage. Products are quickly commoditized and good service is no longer enough. Instead, leading firms are building emotional relationships with their customers, and in a recent survey, Forrester found that emotion — how an experience makes the customer feel — contributed most to customer loyalty in 17 of the 18 industries.[ii]

Branding is about authentic, consistent and purposeful relationship building. It is a "promise delivered". People create allegiances and loyalty to brands. People care deeply about which brand they buy and what that says about them. People care about the difference between Coke and Pepsi, Apple and PC, Wal-mart and Target because of the relationship we have with them.[iii]

Branding is not a campaign, and can be considered a meta-layer that exists before, after and during a campaign. It’s “the expression of the essential truth or value of an organization, product, or service.”[iv] It is communication and demonstration of unique properties that are intended to make the brand appealing to a particular audience. Demonstration is a key point here; communication is not enough.

Consider the various things businesses do to run their business and serve their customers: advertising, operations, sponsorship, recruitment, strategy, etc. Each of these is run independently and thus there is room for them to deviate slightly from each other in intent or execution. To a customer or a member of the general public, there may be inconsistencies in what they hear about your service and what they see in your advertising, or between the way you recruit staff and the way you support your communities. A strong brand is the unifying link that brings separate storylines into one cohesive, consistent story for your audience.

3.0 What is Brand Experience?

There are lots of models of what constitutes a brand, but at Poulin Strategy we like to divide brand into 4 key components:

3.1 Brand Visual Identity

This is how your company looks. It includes the artistic design of publications, advertising, internal documents and websites. It includes colours, symbols and other visual devices that create a mimetic reference point for the public.

3.2 Brand Voice

This is how you sound in your communications. It’s your tone of voice, language and mood. Harriet Cummings presents the following example between using formal and informal language and how they represent your brand differently: “We wish to inform you of a new offer currently available.” vs. “Watch out! We’re chucking a new offer in your direction.”[v]

3.4    Brand Promise

This is what you say. It’s the promise you make to your customers. It’s your value proposition. The value proposition is not a positioning line or a slogan. A positioning line defines unique advantages against those of the competition and explains why this difference matters. A slogan supports a specific marketing campaign. A value proposition should guide the strategy, decisions and behaviours of an organization at every turn. It clearly states what the organization promises to deliver to its customers, and the organization must deliver every time through every touch point.

David Aaker, a Berkeley professor who is a thought leader on branding, suggests that the value proposition has three dimensions[vi]:

a)     Functional: the functional benefit the consumer receives from interacting with or consuming the brand, e.g., financing for a new home

b)     Emotional: the positive feeling the consumer experiences when purchasing or using the brand, e.g., feeling more secure and less stressed because someone is making it easy for them to manage their finances

c)     Self-Expressive: providing a way for a person to communicate his or her self-image, e.g., choosing to deal with a trusted, local partner who is part of the community rather than a big bank

3.4 Brand Experience, aka Customer Experience

This is what customers experience when they deal with a business. It is the delivery of your promise. It includes every aspect of your service, from the way you answer the phone to the products or services you provide.

In his 1986 book, Moments of Truth, Jan Carlzon states: “Anytime a customer comes into contact with any aspect of a business, however remote, is an opportunity to form an impression.”[vii] Disney is famous for the way they approach these moments of truth. At a 2013 conference hosted by the Marketing Association for Credit Unions in Whistler, BC, a speaker from Disney explained that if a guest experienced 40 moments of truth during a visit to a Disney park and 39 were amazing and 1 was disappointing, the disappointment usually dominated memories of the experience. Thus Disney has enacted very strict standards for all aspects of the experience they provide.

Furthermore, those that tackle re-branding without managing change from the inside will eventually implode. A brand promise that is wallpapered over a poor experience runs the risk of being seen as false, quickly obvious to those who come in contact with the organization.

The image below demonstrates how the experience delivered is the foundation of branding. If your brand is the Titanic, make sure you pay attention to what’s below the water before it sinks you.


4.0 Managing the Brand Experience

It is usually much more challenging to demonstrate your brand than to voice it. While marketing campaigns should involve and inform various groups within a company (and not just marketing), intentionally aligning operations to deliver on brand proof points through every touch point can often be an enterprise-wide initiative. Disciplines like service design, change management and leadership are critical to this process.

Some companies get things right from the start, defining the experience they want to provide and then building their marketing around that. More often, a company has an existing marketing platform but hasn’t worked it into every channel and touch point within their service delivery. In these situations, we recommend identifying all touch points and creating a matrix linking each touch point to the segments that come in contact with it, then prioritizing each touch point based on impact.

We would then tackle each touch point or group of related touch points using our E4 process: Explore, Envision, Evaluate, Execute. The process is grounded in service design and change management. The process is highly iterative and highly customizable to any client; there are numerous tools available at each stage making it easy to scale the effort to the size of the problem and the budget available.


4.1 Explore

If a brand exists in the mind of your customers, you must first understand what impressions they have, what pains they experience and what unfulfilled wishes they have. The goal is to clearly identify opportunities to delight customers by better aligning your delivery to their interpretation of your brand promise.

We use a variety of tools to accomplish this including ethnographic research, stakeholder mapping, journey mapping, persona creation, focus groups and interviews.

4.2 Envision

Once a clear opportunity has been identified, you must find a way to capitalize on it. This involves generating possibilities for later testing. We practice co-creation in this stage, involving staff and customers in the process to both validate viability and to engage and create buy-in. We also apply the Net Surprise equation and Time function to ensure the ideas generated can consistently demonstrate memorable experiences.

4.3 Evaluate

Most ideas should fail. As stated in This is Service Design Thinking, “One of the main features of service design thinking is that this approach is not about avoiding mistakes, but rather about exploring as many as possible mistakes.”[viii] The ideas generated are put through rigorous logical testing, prototyping and user testing to ensure fit and function. Those that fail often yield new insights that warrant further creation. Repeating the second and third stages several times is encouraged as it usually yields the best results.

4.4 Execute

You have a winning idea, but now you have to make it reality. This stage is often the hardest and most involved. Ideally you’ve engaged your teams in the co-creation process and they are both aware of and supportive of the need for change. We develop change management plans, develop service blueprints and identify requirements to ensure implementation is seamless and successful.

5.0 Conclusion

In a service economy, individuals desire service. They will scrimp and save on goods to save money for the services they value more. In the new experience economy proposed by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, people will start to save on services to pay for experiences that truly engage them.[ix] Thus, the customer experience is a key part of a company’s future success and should be inherently defined within a company’s overall strategy.

6.0 References


[ii] Pattek, S. (2015) Brand Experience Redefines Brand Management [Forrester]




[vi] Aaker, D. (1996) Building Strong Brands (p. 95)


[viii] Stickdorn, M. (2011) This is Service Design Thinking (p. 130)

[ix] Pine II, J. & Gilmore, J. (1998) The Experience Economy (p. 92)