Delivering Better Brand Experiences: Why It’s So Hard and What to Do About It

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Great marketing is about making consumers enjoy the experience they have with your brand. Every consumer touchpoint should be a delightful brand experience, even when carrying a commercial message. This is how you positively impact everyday customer behavior and purchasing decisions. If we want people to change how they behave, we have to change their experiences. In spite of this knowledge, brand marketing is often tied to vanity metrics that don’t drive any real behavior change, and performance marketing is not much better than the cheesy infomercial you see on late-night TV.

But marketers want to do better: no one sets out to do a mediocre job. The industry is continuously innovating to deliver better brand experiences and drive impact, but the results are often inconsistent, making it difficult to know what new practices to adopt.

This post explores some of the current efforts made to provide a better brand experience. Through this careful exploration, we’ll discuss why it’s so hard to raise the bar and look to the future to see how to break out of stale marketing cycles.

Retail reinvented

Prada “Epicenter,” New York. Designed by OMA/Rem Koolhaas, 2001 – photo by Mark Guiducci for Vanity Fair

In spite of the proclaimed “retail apocalypse” data show that for every company closing a store, 2.7 companies are opening one. The difference is that more and more companies are re-envisioning retail spaces. They are conceptualizing them as a brand experience more than a point of sale.

This trend is definitely not a revolution: high fashion and luxury companies have often created retail stores that double as experiential brand journeys. Take Prada, for example, which has created a retail space where the experience is elevated over the simple opportunity to make a purchase.

High fashion may have tapped into this trend early, but it wasn’t until Apple entered the retail business that it became a clear path to the future of marketing. If a tech brand could do it (and be extremely successful at it), then any brand could use their retail space to create experiential brand love and true brand ambassadors.

This is the reason why online native brands like Warby Parker, Bonobos, or M.Gemi have started to open retail stores in Manhattan. Many people go to these stores and come out saying “now I get it.” They enter with a general familiarity and leave with a sense of identity and commitment for the brand.

That’s the ideal outcome, but leaning on permanent retail experiences to build brand love is very capital-intensive and hard to scale.

An experience like never before

Refinery 29’s 29 Rooms – Photo courtesy of Refinery 29

AdAge argues that experiential experiences are the next big thing for most marketers and agencies (together with influencers, obviously) and the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) estimated spending in experiential marketing to have grown 6% in 2017 to $357 billion. A study from Eventbrite shows that 78% Millennials choose to spend money on a desirable experience over buying something desirable. 

An example of this could be Refinery 29’s “29 rooms” project, an exhibition where the company collaborates with local artists to create spaces where visitors can interact with the spaces and the art around them.

While experiential marketing benefits from a user-generated and PR amplification, it’s hard to control the conversation and even harder to scale. After all, an experience requires the engagement of consumers’ senses, and that often requires in-person interactions over a sustained period of time. Many hope that virtual reality (VR) can solve the problem of scaling experiences, but data show that the worldwide sale of VR headset was a mere 8.3M in 2017, with an expected growth to 12.4 M in 2018. We are obviously still far away from the tipping point.

Experiential activations are a less-permanent form of brand experience that often act as practical ways to break through during the busy holiday season or leave a mark during a product launch.

Tailormade digital experiences

Make Google Do It UK 2018 campaign

Remarkable brand experiences can also be created by leveraging new digital ad formats, reinventing old media, or merging the old with the new. Google recently launched an updated version of its former “make google do it” campaign that uses digital Out Of Home to show relevant information depending on contextual signals such as weather and location. I’m a big advocate of improving advertising through contextual relevance, and this kind of advertising is such an improvement from the traditional ad formats that can barely be defined as advertisement.

Still, the problem persists. These efforts can currently only live in a controlled (and therefore limited) environment.

Ads that don’t look like ads

Orange is the New Black – New York Times Paid Post

We have been expecting the demise of the modern advertising industry for a very long time. With the rise of ad-blockers and the enactment of GDPR, it’s clear that the advertising industry needs to take a good look in the mirror and provide a better ad experience to consumers.

The answer seems to be in providing ads that don’t look like ads, like in the native advertising examples from Netflix and the New York Times advertising the new season of Orange is the New Black. Here, the television series partnered with the newspaper to create real, meaningful content that was also linked to the show’s topics, giving consumers something of value within the advertisement.

However, these kinds of experiences, like the other examples above, are hard to craft and even harder to scale, and that’s why probably the bar is very low when it comes to the majority of the advertising out there.

What makes a brand experience “better”

Marketers need to honor the advertising value exchange in order to break through: attention is currency, and if you demand something from consumers, you need to provide something in return. What you have to offer comes in the form of entertainment and value. But as we have seen in the examples above, they don’t necessarily scale well.

Sure, some efforts are going to go towards positioning the brand and will receive social amplification, but that should not be an excuse for lack of measurable impact on sales, otherwise marketing will always be seen as a cost center (with budgets to be cut), rather than a strategic investment to build a competitive advantage for the company.

Sure, some efforts are going to go towards positioning the brand and will receive social amplification, but that should not be an excuse for lack of measurable impact on sales, otherwise marketing will always be seen as a cost center (with budgets to be cut), rather than a strategic investment to build a competitive advantage for the company.

So if the solution is clear, why don’t we do more of this?

The marketer juggling act

Photo by Andrea Bertozzini on Unsplash

Every marketer and advertiser needs to balance reach and impact. I can drive a 40% lift on  1,000,000 customers or a 4% lift on 10,000,000 and achieve the same results (assuming the lift is statistically significant and it translates into the same impact in sales). What usually makes the difference between a 40% lift and a 4% lift is how well the activation (creative + media = experience) has worked to engage consumers. Marketers work with finite resources (time, money, or bandwidth) and remarkable brand experiences burn through them at a higher rate, sacrificing scale for impact.

Time – Custom made activations often required specialized skills. If your creative agency or team needs to allocate its resources to create a custom interactive ad format, they will likely have less time to develop banner ads and still meet the deadline.

Money – Developing an experiential activation is a great idea, but often an expensive one. You will get an additional amplification from the headlines that it makes or the user-generated content it creates, but amplification is out of your control. You may need to outsource it to a specialized agency or engineering team, which cuts deeper into your budget.

Bandwidth – The more complexity you add to the mix, the less bandwidth you are going to have to guarantee flawless execution on all fronts. Some things are going to be exceptional, but others are going to be sub-par.

Being disciplined at innovating

Photo by Darius Soodmand on Unsplash

Any marketing campaign requires a balancing act between reach and impact, and remarkable brand experiences are defined by their ability to be extraordinary and differentiate themselves. To create such experiences, brands and companies need an environment that allows them to experiment and foster innovation and pushes them to set the same high standard for all its marketing activities.

Most marketers and companies are happy with a successful campaign, without tackling the real challenge of scaling that level of execution in everything they do. Being satisfied with great activation during the holiday campaign is like finding the cure for a deadly disease but then stopping the work after the animal testing. It doesn’t mean we have solved the problem, we have just barely scratched the surface.

Some companies have embraced this concept, setting aside an “innovation budget” to relieve some of the tension brought by the resource constraint mentioned above and to truly push the boundaries. But the innovation budget is often a mythical creature that every company tries to conquer, and it’s also the first one to be slain in time of famine (i.e. budget cuts).

Also, most marketers and companies are happy with a successful campaign, without tackling the real challenge of scaling that level of execution in everything they do. Being satisfied with great activation during the holiday campaign is like finding the cure for a deadly disease but then stopping the work after the animal testing. It doesn’t mean we have solved the problem, we have just barely scratched the surface.

The (Real) Incentives

Photo by Vladimir Solomyani on Unsplash

I’m a firm believer that if you want to understand why things work in a certain way, you need to look at how people get rewarded, and if you want to drive change, you need to change incentives. We are all motivated by a sense of righteousness and a willingness to do amazing things, but when the pressure gets high, not many people are willing to go on a limb and do the “right thing” vs. the “safe thing.”

The bigger barrier is incentives. Although everyone conceptually agrees with the idea that innovation has a high failure rate, very few people are willing to accept failure in practice. Who wants to run a project for three or six or even twelve months only to then say it failed?

In truth, the ones that are more capable of creating better brand experiences are the ones who have the license to fail and are not measured by ROI of their work in everything they do. The ones that drive the biggest impact, are the ones that are very strict about the way they measure success. We should thrive to be both. 

No matter the best intentions, corporate culture disincentivizes risks: you set your targets at the beginning of the year, and you are measured on your ability to achieve them. If you do what is expected and don’t meet your goals, you are going to be in less trouble than if you have taken risks and done something different. The willingness to take a risk is counter-intuitive to the corporate survival mentality, and risk may not happen unless individuals are at peace with the approach of “go big or go home” (literally!)

As a result, three things happen:

  • We set a shallow measure of success. As a result, we don’t admit that most of our energy went into something that is either not replicable or scalable.
  • Everything new is celebrated as a success. As a result, we don’t recognize what failed and therefore we don’t improve in the next iteration.
  • We default to what has worked in the past. As a result, we are not raising the bar or adapting to new consumer expectations.

I may be generalizing here, but when was the last time you ran a post-mortem for a campaign you ran vs. a celebratory recap deck?

In truth, the ones that are more capable of creating better brand experiences are the ones who have the license to fail and are not measured by ROI of their work in everything they do. The ones that drive the biggest impact, are the ones that are very strict about the way they measure success. We should thrive to be both. 

Run at 80-90% capacity

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

I intentionally made this post about better brand experiences vs. innovation because while the latter is often seen as a “nice to have,” most marketers can agree that the former is an absolute necessity. But considering the constraints above, the two cannot be separate. How can we make sure we have that space to experiment, innovate, and ultimately develop better brand experiences at scale?

An interesting approach we could take is to change the way we plan and incentivize people. Currently, most companies have an “ideal state” objective for where they need to get and then a “bottom-up” process of identifying the resources needed to get there. The resources available are then pared down through a top-down approach while keeping the desired target objective steady. In the same way, individual targets are set to stretch individuals beyond what’s in their current capacity, requiring them to over-achieve previous performance.

In short, if we truly want innovative, new marketing strategies that provide the experiences and outcomes we desire, we have to provide space for them to come into existence. We need to be incredibly strict in evaluating their ability to drive a real impact, maniacal about finding a way to scale them to everything we do,  but be OK with the fact that many of them will fail. If we are asking for something that has never been done before, we have to stop being afraid when it looks like something we’ve never seen. Only by allowing room for experimentation we achieve excellence and growth.

This creates an environment of scarcity of resources and “no failure allowed” incentive system that discourages experimentation. What if we could change that? What if we could plan our cycles to allow for extra capacity? What if everyone could have one day or half a day out of their week to experiment and work on new things? What if we could have 10-20% of the budget that could not be cut or redistributed? This would be an evolution of Google’s “20% project” because it would be a formal effort by teams and groups vs. an individually-driven effort.

In a Formula One team, you need mechanics and engineers: the mechanics need to optimize the engine to run as efficient as possible and engineers need to find a way to evolve and improve it. We run teams dividing mechanics and engineers, but what if everyone could be both of within a certain frame of governance?

In a good incentive system, we all need to be pushed to achieve our best with 80-90% of our resources, but we also need to be provided a safe space to experiment, innovate, and eventually fail.

In short, if we truly want innovative, new marketing strategies that provide the experiences and outcomes we desire, we have to provide space for them to come into existence. We need to be incredibly strict in evaluating their ability to drive a real impact, maniacal about finding a way to scale them to everything we do,  but be OK with the fact that many of them will fail. If we are asking for something that has never been done before, we have to stop being afraid when it looks like something we’ve never seen. Only by allowing room for experimentation we achieve excellence and growth.


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Author: Paolo

Economist by education, digital marketer by profession, coffee roaster by hobby.