For most companies, branding is about positioning, advertising, packaging, and catchy logos and slogans. That is not enough. Branding in today's marketplace is about the total experience a customer has with your products or services. It is about enticing customers, gaining their trust, and making the experience so pleasant that they are proud of their choice and will tell others about it.
Recently, I was in the market for a vehicle that would be safe and meet the needs of my busy wife and children. We narrowed the choice to two vehicles. I travel a great deal, so when one dealer promised that in the event of a breakdown he would pick up the vehicle immediately and take it in for servicing, my wife was sold.
For the first two months, my wife told everyone how much she enjoyed the vehicle and appreciated the security in the dealer's guarantee. She was a walking brand builder for that manufacturer. But the first time the vehicle needed service, the dealer failed to keep his promise. He didn't arrange for immediate pickup, nor did he schedule the service appointment promptly. With that single incident, the dealer decimated the positive feelings my wife had towards his brand.
Consumers are not a happy lot and they won't tolerate much abuse. They suffer from distemper. Consumers are:
Pressured for time
Only a few years ago, a half hour to prepare food at home was considered normal for "fast-home-cooked" offerings. Today, if the food isn't on the table in five minutes or less, it's not fast food.
Starved for affinity
When consumers are short of time they are short of relationships. Many of the new exciting retail formats from coffee shops to destination restaurants play up the need to belong.
Jaded and skeptical
Today's marketplace offers customers unprecedented choice. They know that in many categories of goods and services, they can buy lower-cost but high-quality private-label brands that will meet their performance requirements. In the tradeoff between cost and quality, the perceived status and confidence associated with buying a name brand isn't enough to close the sale any more.
Short of money
Pressures on income are increasing for most consumers. They have no extra money to be wasted by underperforming suppliers.
What consumer distemper means is that now, more than ever, companies cannot afford to forget that the customer's experience is an integral part of branding. We call this chain end-to-end learning because the customer is learning who and what we really are. They're learning about us based on what we do, not what we say. That empirical experience is indelible. So, we'd better be sure that we know what we're teaching them.
The challenge of managing a customer's experience comes from the fact that it happens out on the front lines of the company. In many cases, few employees know firsthand what is happening to customers. More frequently, managers who are making major decisions on new investments or process redesign have little idea of the end-to-end impact those decisions will have on the customer experience.
One client has created a series of videos demonstrating its target customer experience. These videos are shown not only to marketing managers, but also to the systems developers who are building the support infrastructure that will enable the experience. No written list of systems requirements can ever substitute for the visceral understanding that people develop when they see and hear the customer's experience with the product.
Brand relationships are not confined to consumer products. They exist with hospitals, taxi companies, cleaners, garages, airlines, restaurants, and more. The strength of a brand experience is inextricably linked to every aspect of buying and using a product, not just to the inherent performance of the product itself.
Before launching that next advertising campaign or promotion, ask yourself how your investment decisions affect the customer experience, and if everyone - from senior executives to counter clerks - is aware of how much the brand's value hinges on the quality of experience you deliver.
Here are some questions to consider.
Can you describe the end-to-end experience, through "learn-buy-get-use-pay-service," that different customer segments experience?
Could you present it in a video for employees?
Do you have specific measures that track your ability to overcome the dissatisfactions (such as long waits for delivery and repairs, inaccuracies in orders and billings) customers encounter as they progress through your brand's experience?
Can you map the ripple effects of problems from misleading marketing claims to consumer distemper to service calls and product returns? Can you measure the economic implication of fixing these problems?
What is the dollar value of delivering an experience that consistently produces brand boosters and eliminates brand blasters?
Brand management is at a turning point. As the cacophony of the marketplace escalates, only those brands that deliver will succeed. Increased advertising investment alone won't move the sales needle: refocus your brand management on the outcomes that matter most - those that affect the lives of your customers.
George Stalk is senior partner and managing director of Boston Consulting Group of Canada Ltd. and adjunct professor of strategic management for the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto