Monday, 20 July 2015

Why are relationships at the core of brand experience?


The dawn of the Experience Economy (Pine & Gilmore, 1999) has meant for brand strategists, recognizing the ubiquity of communications and entertainment as the core ingredients of branding activities. Many of the most successful online brands are entertainment brands and, broadly speaking, educational in nature (for example, think of the prominent online brands YouTube, Google, Wikipedia). Terms like infotaintment have gained an important place in the jargon that goes beyond their use as catchy buzzwords. Brand experience is today defined by a brand’s ability to effectively communicate across a variety of channels and to do so in a way that delivers real value to consumers. In fact, Gilovich et al, (2014) among other empirical researchers, have consistently shown that people derive more value from experiential purchases than materialistic ones—consumers don’t simply want goods to be functional or to provide social status, but want them to add value to their lives and to help them build their own sense of identity.

Along these lines, the 2009 Brand experience: what is it? How is it measured? Does it affect loyalty? showed that brand experience entailed an additional factor to the traditional four used by most brand strategists: brand attitude, attachment, personality and involvement. Their work showed that the intensity of the experience—which is separate from brand valence or emotional charge—is by itself predictive of desirable brand outcomes. Experiential marketing activities have become primary sources, delivering data on the intensity of experiences, yet the increased capabilities of digital media to deliver multifaceted communications and to test their results in real time have made digital platforms just as apt for the job—Red Bull’s Stratos remains emblematic about the role experiential marketing plays in brand activation.

The traditional approach to brand experience tells firms to focus their experience on one or more of the following five dimensions: sensorial, affective, intellectual, behavioral and relational, where the dimension chosen is often determined by the setting of the experience (the channel or delivery method). Many Brand Strategists simply take this determination for granted; yet those with intellectual curiosity are motivated to raise the same question that Bern Schmitt, the father of experiential marketing, is still asking today:

Are certain digital and mobile settings and media particularly appropriate for evoking certain experience dimensions?

From a commercial perspective retailers may rephrase this question as, for instance, how should store and online settings be designed and integrated to deliver certain types of experiences?

Whether rephrased to your own context or answered in the original, it remains the case that the answer begins by acknowledging that we live in a world that has social concerns, where companies are more and more often seen as being accountable for their contribution to society at large, and beyond their ability to deliver increased shareholder value; brands are expected to contribute to people’s happiness, by adding value and wellbeing to their lives. In other words, the intensity of an experience can simply not be reduced to the emotional response that branding communications entail.

This is a fundamental point to make, because today brand valence has become the established approach taken by many renowned brands, from Coca Cola’s Open Happiness to Reebok’s I am what I am. Some brands like Aston Martin are not even shy about their one-dimensional approach, with their slogan Power, beauty and soul.

Emotions matter, no doubt about it, but no medium or small sized company has the luxury of focusing on brand valence alone, and then again, why should they?

In the same way as brands cannot be simply dismissed as mere symbols of materialism, successful brand experiences are not one-dimensional—and the risk of doing so is failing to connect with your audience. There is no need to sugarcoat it: brand experience is a multidimensional game that requires visual narratives and accurate consumer intelligence.

Relationships are the core of brand experience

An individual’s relationship with your brand can potentially affect all of your branding measurements, such as equity, engagement or response. In fact a consumer relationship with brands must be intentionally configured, ensuring:
  • Consumers establish deep, meaningful relationships with your brand (Fournier, 1998), 
  • Consumers can become emotionally attached to your brand (Thomson et al, 2005)
  • Consumers use your brand to express their personality not just their status (Vanitha et al, 2009) 
  • Consumers use your brand to build their social self (Escalas and Bettman, 2005)

In turn, once a brand disappoints a consumer, what follows is the breakup of the relationship that is not dissimilar to that of a raunchy divorce with the serious possibility of a trail of negative feelings toward the brand being left behind.

The best way to evaluate how consumers relate to your brand is through Network Analysis (see also What is Network Analysis?). Network Analysis is a relational approach to brand experience, where the quality of relationships determines the value of your delivered experience.

The first thing you must keep in mind is that consumers don’t simply relate to your product, to your logo or to your representatives at the point of sale. In fact customers will relate to your company’s social media outlets, touch points, blog content, YouTube videos and, in short, with all the relevant content that you have created, no matter its initial purpose or scope. Every piece of content outlines a different relationship with your customers, but at the same time, your customers will experience your brand as an association of diverse meanings and values that can either bring value to their lives or simply disrupt it.

Think for instance about the way consumers use your product or relate to your company’s delivered service. Consumers do not simply use your offering to achieve a specific task, but instead associate the way your product delivers value with past experiences, with meanings and values that they hold dear and with other products they use. To illustrate this, keep in mind that when people purchase an IPhone they are, on the one hand, associating themselves with positive values such as innovation, autonomy, out-of-the-box thinking, among others, which they see as enriching their lives. On the other hand, when they use the IPhone they don't simply expect a certain level of functionality, but they expect a product that positively transforms common experiences: jogging around the park while tracking their progress and listening to their favourite bands, being able to browse around the internet at lightning speed or being able to stop typing and start using Siri to find valuable information. Of course these is not a comprehensive list and are just a handful of experiences all of which entail unique relationships with the product—in fact consumers forge relationships with products and technologies, which can be as fulfilling and valuable to them as the ones they have with peers, friends and family.

Do you want to know more about how you can apply Network Analysis to your company’s strategic branding?

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