Today’s dynamic branding environment calls for a new, cross-channel approach to creating and managing richer and more engaging customer experiences.
The Branding Forward Project, a collaboration between Mechanica and Fast Company, is an ongoing investigation of the challenges and opportunities faced by those on today’s branding frontlines. The study, which was conducted among 600-plus branding practitioners and opinion leaders, reveals a branding world that is undergoing a very real, and often polarizing, transition.
Of all the issues covered, the most polarizing for C-suite participants is that of surrendering control over the direction of the consumer experience. Half of those polled believe that consumer-generated ideas are inherently more relevant and effective in driving the customer brand experience, while the other half still believe in the power of creatively driven ideas. This same 50/50 split is also evident with respect to whether opening the marketing process to more people increases or decreases the potential impact of marketing efforts.
“This will be a tough one for marketers to swallow, as it requires rethinking fundamental roles,” said Ted Nelson, CEO of Mechanica. “When a CMO really embraces this idea, she moves from a primary role of gatekeeper to more of a facilitator. And the strategy becomes less about consistency and more about inspiration and engagement.”
Regardless of which side of this divide one falls, it’s important to think differently about how to assess one’s efforts at building strategic advantage via customer experience. In theory, smart marketers of both stripes are committed to delivering an integrated and engaging experience for their customers, but in practice brand experiences are often created and managed in a disintegrated and haphazard fashion, breaking up the experience into discrete components based on operational and functional specialization.
The in-store experience might be very good, but not connected to the catalog experience, which, though also good, might not be connected to the online experience, and so on. This kind of myopic suboptimization results in a brand experience laden with obvious gaps and nonsequitors that confuse and irritate customers.
What’s needed is an analytic process that unites theory and practice to deliver more insightful diagnosis, more targeted redesign efforts, and more practical solutions. Clearly that’s a challenge, but fortunately it’s one that can be addressed by regularly auditing the customer experience using an approach designed to assess both individual channel experiences as well as the overall cross-channel experience.
A Panoramic Brand Experience Audit represents such an approach because it is used to assess brand experience both vertically, from a business process view, as well as horizontally, from a target segment persona perspective. This kind of brand-forward thinking allows CMOs to make organizational changes to support a better customer experience and uncover real competitive advantages. This two-step auditing process is comprehensive yet cost-effective enough to use on a regular basis as part of an ongoing brand-experience optimization protocol.
Audit analysis from vertical and horizontal perspectives.
The Vertical View: Business Process Assessment
This first step starts with constructing a process framework that identifies the key business drivers and consumer touchpoints for the brand. Key business drivers include merchandising, communication, customer service, and social interaction strategies that, in combination, create the experiences that turn into fruitful brand relationships over time. It’s often the case that specialists with valuable expertise but myopic views of the brand experience manage channels and key business-driving dimensions.
While it’s not realistic to think that consumers will experience the brand across all points of contact, it is highly likely they will interact with the brand in multiple and sometimes unpredictable ways. Charting out the totality of the process allows for the assessment of each component alone, as well as in combination, to get a clear picture of how consistent and exciting the brand story potentially is. . .or isn’t.
For example, a fashion retailer with multiple consumer touchpoints might have five categories of business-driving experiences, each comprised of multiple criteria constantly evolving to reflect marketplace realties and consumer expectations:
- Content: advertising, catalog copy, graphics, store design
- Merchandising: tools for browsing, site/store/catalog navigation, loyalty
- Customization: registration, personalization
- Service: FAQs, customer service protocols, help, service prompts
- Participation: Facebook, Twitter, reviews, events
For each major business-driving experience, it’s important to set benchmarks for the type and quality of brand experience customers should expect within each channel, based on best-in-class delivery for that channel. But doing a great job on this task is only half of the battle. Until one develops a horizontal view of the experience, the exercise is incomplete.
The Horizontal View: A Persona-Based Perspective
This is where the marketing expert meets the consumer expert. By taking available consumer data—segmentation research, demographic and usage data, qualitative insights, industry analysis—user personas are constructed to represent key target audiences. Next, have investigators (e.g., mystery shoppers, employees, actual customers) assume these personas, much like actors, to interact with the brand in ways they imagine these customer personas might. This exercise generates huge returns by unearthing unexpected customer engagement opportunities, as well as exposing critical problems with the brand experience. By ordering products online, calling the help line, returning purchases, signing up for events, participating on Facebook, chatting up sales reps in the store, and basically getting as deeply engaged with all aspects of the brand as feasible, it’s possible to identify problems and opportunities based on scenarios that marketing might never have envisioned. This is because aspects of the experience evolve as people interact with brands within the context of everything else going in the world around them.
This cross-channel, persona-based approach can yield a treasure trove of helpful diagnostics, many of which can be put to immediate use in upgrading your brand-experience delivery model. Some seemingly minor, often overlooked, elements that confuse or irritate consumers include:
- brand responses to questions on the company’s Facebook page that are often a total disconnect with the brand’s personality, its key differentiators, or even the medium
- a telephone order from a catalog customer that generates an email response thanking them for ordering online
- questions posed to an online helpline that takes three days to generate a response from someone with an obvious lack of product knowledge
- communications from one channel that reflect no recognition of previous purchase patterns, location or gender
These are the kinds of mistakes and missed opportunities generated by organizations doing a great job within channel experiences but failing to optimize across channels. With the sophistication of today’s marketing technology, consumers expect brands, especially those that are trying to become part of their lives in some significant fashion, to have their stuff together and to use the information they collect to serve them better, not merely to sell them more.
Designing and deploying the components of an integrated brand experience is a basic business process for contemporary B2C brands. It’s a reality of brand-forward marketing. Making sure that the pieces deliver in practice what they are supposed to deliver in theory requires not only expertise, but creative thinking as well. A Panoramic Brand Experience Audit is a useful tool to help you map out the intent of individual components of the experience and then take them for a test drive from the perspective of a target persona.
For more, download “Frontline Report #3” (registration required).