Dick Lee argues that customer experience can be rotten when companies don’t really care that much about customers. (See The Best Branding Pales Beside Bad Behavior. On that point he is absolutely right. The London-based customer experience management consultancy Beyond Philosophy conducted research that showed that more than 90 percent of brands over-promise in their marketing communications and are routinely unable to deliver against their promises. Shame on them.
But I am not so sure that he is right when he suggests that it is not possible to marry brands to customers. It is all about marrying two different perspectives.
The brand manager and the customer
From the perspective of the brand manager, brand marketing is all about extolling the virtues of the company’s products to anyone who will take notice. It is about communicating a promise to the masses, who generally have little or no experience of the brand, itself—even if the majority of consumers only notice the brand marketing of the products or categories they are already using or interested in.
Most direct marketing is not all that different. Sure, the marketing is targeted at individuals, rather than to the masses, but the selection of target customers is still too often carried out in response to a marketing manager’s demand to “get me 50,000 names for the next marketing campaign,” rather than a conscious effort to offer something of value to carefully selected customers. It is still the company talking at the customers rather than to them.
From the perspective of the customers, the brand is the summation of their entire experience with all the different touch-points with the company, its people and the brand itself, even of similar brands in the same category. The customer experience includes many different touch-points, from brand marketing through word of mouth from others; the typical CRM touch-points of direct marketing, sales and customer service; and importantly, all the different touch-points experienced when using the product. Brand marketing plays a role in building awareness of new products and in setting perceptions of what consuming them will be like. But its influence rapidly diminishes once the customer buys and starts to use the product itself, particularly if things don’t work out as promised. Heaven help the brand that doesn’t do what it says on the tin.
And here is where the real problem lies. Brand managers are not usually responsible for all the other touch-points in the customer experience where the brand promise is actually delivered. They are not responsible for new product design, for the sales force, for after-sales service, for the product during its consumption or for the partners who deliver on the brand’s behalf. They are often not even responsible for different channels that their brand marketing goes out over. As Lee points out from his own experience, without the right sort of collaboration between touch-point owners, things can very quickly go awfully wrong for customers.
In a recent article entitled, Brand Customer Relationship—The Face of Your Business Strategy, David Aaker of Prophet management consultancy, suggests that the brand architecture should direct all the different back-office and customer-facing activities that drive how the communicated brand will be experienced. As Aaker succintly puts it, “A brand is built more through deeds, not words. It is how customers experience what you do.”
Brand or experience?
Companies with strong brands should purposefully build all aspects of their end-to-end customer experience so that it can deliver the brand’s promise. Let’s call this approach “experiencing the brand.” And companies without strong brands but with good experiences should take a hard look at whether they should focus first on developing their brand, complete with a matching customer experience, or whether the customer experience itself should be developed into a brand. Let’s call this approach, “branding the experience.”
Whichever approach you take, one thing is clear: It is the customer experience where brands and customers actually meet. Building a customer experience that brings both together properly is not easy, but the experiences of many companies and their satisfied customers show that it can be done.
Can brands be integrated with customers? You betcha. As a former U.S. president might have said, “It’s the customer experience, stupid.”