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BrandLoop #9, August 1999

Are You Experienced?

An earlier BrandLoop looked at how brands would have to change as we enter the next millennium. One of the areas mentioned was the Brand Experience. This extends beyond brand values to introduce new associations and to allow the consumer to become more immersed in the experience. When we move beyond the brand, we enter the Brand Experience. This takes the product or service further than brand values and opens up new areas of association and engagement for the consumer. This can occur on a number of levels, such as:

  • The experience adds a new communications channel that surrounds the consumer.

  • The experience adds a service element to the product providing a stronger offer.

  • The experience allows the brand to be extended across seemingly unrelated products and services as the brand is more important than the individual product or service capabilities.

The Brand Experience is all the more important when one considers that in many developed markets, consumers are becoming increasingly disenfranchised from traditional marketing. This was the subject of an earlier ConsumerLoop. The Brand Experience represents a means to bring consumers back to the brand and provide a greater degree of relevance for them. Brand experience can allow the consumer to develop a closer relationship with the brand.

The Communications Experience

The development of Brand Experience as a communications channel spans the area from factory visits to event marketing. The most obvious example of this experience is Disney's development of theme parks. However, it is important to note that not everybody can visit a theme park regularly. Therefore, the establishment of the worldwide chain of Disney stores enables the Disney experience to be enjoyed locally. The Disney stores are about far more than selling merchandise. In the same way, the growing number of NikeTown stores represent more than an additional retail channel.

Unilever is opening tea shops using a new brand "Cha". Nestlé has opened Nescafé coffee houses and these are now to be extended into motorway service areas, Café Nescafé, and inside retail outlets. Like the Disney stores, these coffee and tea shops represent not only a new distribution channel for hot beverages but they also allow the development of the Brand Experience. Witness here the success of Starbucks and other quality coffee shops that have transformed coffee drinking from a mere activity to an emotional experience. Consumers are not simply buying a cup of coffee. Lyons understood this many years ago and it is interesting to note that in the UK, Paulig is returning the Lyons coffee brand to its roots through the opening of Lyons coffee shops.

The blending of social values also adds experience to the brand. In this way, both The Body Shop and Ben & Jerry's offer more than their products but they allow the customer to participate in a social and ethical marketing programme. The consumers become part of the programme and ambassadors for the social values.

General Motors has opened Europe's first automotive theme park in Germany. Opel Live has forecast 1.5 million visitors for its first three years. The theme park includes a 3-D cinema, car simulators, interactive exhibits, a themed ride and a tour of the manufacturing facility. While this may be the first of many such parks in Europe, the next stage is to follow the Disney model and make the Brand Experience locally relevant. This could include extending it to other General Motors plants and, undoubtedly, its dealers. For most consumers, the only contact with the company is through the dealers and so this is where the experience needs to be developed. Question: how can brand-focused theme parks like Legoland and Cadbury World reach a wider audience?

In fact, all retailers should be able to add experience to their offer. Music retailers offer the chance to listen to music in the store. The latest Virgin Megastore in the UK has taken this further with vibrating floors around the listening points and in the games area. This adds a whole new experience to music shopping. Restaurants offer an experience that is not available when eating at home. Witness here having meals cooked at the table. This suggests that manufacturers can add brand experience to their products by looking at areas such as restaurants. Surely, it is a fairly simple move for makers of ready meals to provide a pair of chopsticks with each meal to tap into the authenticity experience.

Adding the Service Element

When a service element is added to a product, it allows an area of experience to be developed. On-line retailers such as amazon.com and CDnow are able to utilise technology to provide recommendations for their regular customers and so generate a stronger relationship and, presumably, more sales. In fact, any business using the Web should be able to learn about its customers and adjust its offer accordingly.

Similarly, the nature of the Web makes it a perfect way of adding customer experience. For example, SmithKline Beecham's Nicorette Web site provides far more than simple product information and represents a service element for smokers wishing to give up. The possibility of continuous updating, discussion forums and e-mail correspondence make the Web a natural partner for launching books, films and TV programmes.

Even bricks and mortar retailers are able to improve the customer experience. Witness here the growth of coffee shops within bookstores that encourage customers to stay longer and look at more books.

Brands that already have a service element are tapping into customer experience whether they like it or not. Every contact with the company represents interaction with the brand. This highlights the importance of consistency across all commercial messages. The driver in the company lorry or the operator on the end of the telephone communicate just as much as a major advertising campaign.

Brand Extension

Our earlier work looked at how the Disney, Virgin and, more recently, Cosmopolitan brands were being extended into new categories. Under this scenario, the company's manufacturing operations are less relevant than its ability to manage a brand and develop properties that allow the brand to be transferred. Virgin may have started life as a music retailer but today it has become an experience that can be transferred across seemingly unrelated categories. A recent survey by J Walter Thompson identified Virgin as the company with the greatest capacity to "bounce" into new sectors. Any new product or service launched will start with the existing brand values and should be managed so that it enhances them.

Summary

The creation of the Brand Experience represents an area that companies will have to address in order to provide sustained differentiation for their brands. At a time when consumers are becoming increasingly disenfranchised from many marketing activities and many marketers are finding it difficult to differentiate their brands through "conventional" means, the Brand Experience can represent the way forward. The Brand Experience seeks to immerse the consumer in the brand and connect rather than distance them.

Brand Experience is a wide concept that runs close to event marketing at one end and relationship marketing at the other extreme. It looks beyond the brand to identify and develop values that have a greater degree of relevance for the consumer. In doing this, it moves much close to the consumer in terms of immersion, engagement or individual relationships. This is where brands can start to develop a competitive edge. The Brand Experience enables marketers to provide genuine and sustainable differentiation which, in turn, provides a strong defence against "me-toos" and other competitive threats.

Through the Loop is tracking the development of Brand Experience. Our Brand Positive programme to analyse the management of leading brands through times of slow economic growth has already shown that many marketers are looking to surround their brands with a greater level of customer experience.

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