Thursday, September 1, 2011

What is Your Experience Brand?

Since I launched this blog a few weeks ago, some people have asked me what I mean by experience branding. It's essentially a merging of brand and user experience, which are both hot topics lately and the usage of the terminology is outpacing comprehension. Even people in the field argue about the exact definition. Further complicating matters, some people capitalize on the trends by applying these labels to work that is representative of neither. I hope after reading this post and the others that will follow shortly, you will have a clear understanding of the nature and benefits of these tools and be armed against the posers lurking within and outside your company.

First, user experience (UX), also sometimes called customer experience or experience design, is the foundation of a brand experience. It is a broad discipline rooted in user research. If there is no research then it is not user experience. If there is no actual user involvement, it is not user experience. It is mostly based on qualitative measures and driven by observation of behavior, with less emphasis on direct inquiry. One of the key disciplines under UX is usability, this is your baseline, the ergonomic and/or cognitive qualities of your product or service that ensures a user can both understand and interact to successfully complete a task. This is the foundation level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, meeting the most basic requirements. The other aspect of UX is the level of engagement and delight experienced by the user while interacting with your product or service. This represents the mid and higher levels of Maslow's pyramid and results in customer loyalty and higher net promoter scores (NPS) which are very popular among executives these days.

It's a Nascow!
The term brand has a long history, originating as a symbol burned into the flesh of livestock to prove ownership. As we entered the industrial age it represented the company logo on products, and expanded to include the full look and presentation of corporate  advertising as companies grew even larger through marketing with the expanded reach of broadcast media technologies. Today we interact and engage with media much more deeply than ever before and the meaning of brand is evolving again, this time to be a feeling associated with a company and even individuals. People now talk about personal brand, brand image, brand identity, brand marketing, brand engagement, brand equity, brand loyalty, brand experience, ad infinitum. So what is brand now? What do you think of when someone says the word 'brand'? A logo? Color scheme? Catchy tagline or slogan? Packaging? All of them combined? Or maybe something entirely different?

As defined by Sasha Strauss of Innovation Protocol, "A brand is an exclusive and desirable idea embodied in products, places, services, people and experiences." That is a pretty solid definition of a modern brand but, in my opinion, it suffers from a problematic assumption typical of marketers transitioning from the propaganda marketing era: it implies control. A flawed concept suggesting your company or an agency could create an idea and keep it exclusive. It's completely understandable since that concept is at the heart of a marketing agency's business model. However, in a world of multi-part conversations instead of one-way broadcasts, that control is ever more elusive. Robert Brunner, founder of San Francisco design company Ammunition, recently described brand as simply a gut feeling. That description does a great job of conveying the intangibility of brand and focusing on the emotional over intellectual aspects, but in its simplicity it opens some big questions. How does one create a gut feeling? What factors influence it? If it isn't a good feeling, can it be changed?

Now that's customer loyalty
For practical purposes I prefer to think of brand as an identity, like a character in a story; while the actual brand would be the feelings people have towards that character, the character is something that can be designed and added upon, or grown. Through interactions with the character, you influence the feelings people have about you or your company, thereby building your brand experience. For good examples of successful experience brands look at Disney, Southwest Airlines, Harley Davidson and Zappos to name just a few. How can you identify the great experience brands? A broadcast brand pushes its message and logo out onto the world; with a great experience brand, people speak the message freely and steal the logo to put on themselves.

So hopefully that clears up the "whats" and now maybe you are thinking of creating an experience brand. Well, you can't create it, you already have one, we all do. Chances are it wasn't planned, crafted or maintained but it's there. The good news is that experience brands aren't static, they are always in motion and you can steer towards a new goal and change your existing brand.

Coming up in part two, I will cover how to build your your experience brand, who it is for (not just your customers) and why you can't hire a consultant to do it for you.


  1. Did you read Pattern Recognition by William Gibson? As a person who always avoided 'popular brands as status symbols' with me the novel helped gel that idealization of individual branding as having a involuntary as well as deliberate formation. If you haven't read it, here is the Wiki-blurb abbreviated.

    And thanks! Angela

    "Pattern Recognition is a novel by science fiction writer William Gibson published in 2003. Set in August and September 2002, the story follows Cayce Pollard, a 32-year-old marketing consultant who has a psychological sensitivity to corporate symbols. The action takes place in London, Tokyo, and Moscow as Cayce judges the effectiveness of a proposed corporate symbol and is hired to seek the creators of film clips anonymously posted to the internet.

    The novel's central theme involves the examination of the human desire to detect patterns or meaning and the risks of finding patterns in meaningless data. Other themes include methods of interpretation of history, cultural familiarity with brand names, and tensions between art and commercialization. The September 11, 2001 attacks are used as a motif representing the transition to the new century. Critics identify influences in Pattern Recognition from Thomas Pynchon's postmodern detective story The Crying of Lot 49.

  2. Thanks for the comment Angela. I haven't read the book, just reading non-fiction for the past several years. Much of the fuel for this post was grounded in personal observation and books such as Chief Culture Officer (McCracken), Drive (Pink), The Hidden Brain (Vedantam), Blink (Gladwell), Tipping Point (Gladwell), Switch (Heath), Made to Stick (Heath), Delivering Happiness (Hsieh), Tribal Leadership (Logan, et al), The Power of Pull (Hagel, et al) and Good to Great (Collins).