The key for effective brand management is creating a positive and memorable brand experience for customers.A Brand experience is the ecosystem that exists around a brand or product, manifested in the sensations, feelings, cognitions, and behavioral responses evoked by a brand. The Brandberries has exclusively interviewed Heba Sayed, Marketing Manager of Watson Customer Engagement at IBM MEA, to get her take on how brands win with building experiences.

BB: There is a general understanding that brand experience is all about appealing to human emotions to create a connection to drive customer behavior. In your opinion, what is brand experience really all about?

HS: In my view appealing to human emotions is an old perception of marketing in general, and brand experience in particular. 

Back in the day, it was expected that marketing and advertising efforts build the brand through ensuring consumers like certain products or services better, or feel more favorably about them through catchy slogans and jingles, emotional ads and storytelling.

I am not undermining the role of powerful storytelling and creative marketing work in creating the brand experience. Instead I believe that due to the complexity of today’s consumers and their heightened expectations, it usually takes much more  than appealing to customers’ emotions to build a positive and well-rounded brand experience.

If I have to use one word to describe brand experience it would be “relevance”. It’s about creating and perfecting moments and opportunities for brands to become an essential part of customers’ lives, and cut through the clutter. It is estimated that every one of us is exposed to about 5000 brand messages every day; and for a brand to really be fully experienced and remembered, it has to ensure relevance to its customers and be part of their daily lives, as opposed to push down messages to make them “feel” or “act” in a certain way.

From there, customers will be the ones experiencing the brand and and deciding what the brand means to them. Ideally the consumers would do the storytelling, not the marketers or branding experts! 

The other difference between appealing to emotions vs. a true brand experience is the number of people and functions responsible for the brand image. If we agreed that brand experience is about inducing certain emotions this means that brand experience is the sole responsibility of marketers, while in reality everyone is responsible for the brand experience because everyone has to represent what the brand stands for and deliver on the brand promise in their respective areas of responsibility and expertise.

BB: What makes a brand experience “connect” with customers?

HS:A brand experience can connect with customers if it offers unique and real value to enrich its customers’ lives.

Think of ““Today at Apple” hugely successful campaign where Apple conducted educational sessions in hundreds of Apple stores with topics like photo and video to music, coding, art and design and more. This is a brand experience that does not aim to make consumers like Apple better, but to make Apple relevant and essential for their customers and ecosystem by offering something considered of high value to their target audiences!

The experience also has to be authentic and true to the brand values and the values of its customers. There are many examples of brands that tried to create experiences that are deeply embedded within the lives of their customers, but the connection was not built because it was not true to the brand identity. Keeping this balance can be tricky and takes some deep analysis and research to get to the intersection point of the Venn diagram which has 3 circles: 1) What the brand stands for 2) What creates value for customers and 3) What creates real value for the brand

BB: Can experience make or break a brand? What does an unpleasant experience cost a brand?

HS: Overall experience can definitely make or break a brand, but not necessarily. It all depends on what the brand has to offer if experience is not optimal. We all know (or even use!) brands that provide less than desired experience for the sake of their convenience, price, variety or a combination of all these!

The issue with not giving proper attention to brand experience is that it makes customers much more willing to switch brands if these competitive advantages are gone; and in today’s world, competitive advantages change all the time due to the fast changes in technology and logistics. If customers are not happy with an experience with a certain brand, and an alternative comes to life, it would be a no-brainer for these customers to switch brands!

If we start to look into the effect that one unpleasant experience may cost a brand, I believe that – luckily for brands – customers are normally forgiving! One unpleasant experience for a customer with a brand can usually be easily overcome if handled appropriately and with care. Usually customers can overcome a single bad experience if the brand a) acknowledges it and b) rectifies it!

The only exception where I would think a single experience would heavily cost a brand is if that experience involves an element against the brand values or what it stands for. In this case, the entire credibility of the brand falls to the ground and it can be hard to recover from this mishap. It’s therefore absolutely essential for brand to have and uphold the core values they stand for and ensure these are prevalent through all elements of their brand experience. 

BB: Are brand experiences measurable? Can you mention some of the proven to be successful metrics to measure the impact of a brand experience?

HS: Not all aspects of brand experiences can be measured scientifically so to speak. Brand experience is a relationship between brand and customers, and just as human relationships cannot be measured in full – whether positive or negative- brand experiences cannot be quantified or benchmarked against other experiences, for example.

While the experience itself cannot be measured, there are some ways to understand the impact of brand experience on customer behavior! 

There are the traditional ways which try to measure the impact on tangible elements of the brand: an example is ad/experience recall tests, conducting focus groups, analyzing sentiment towards brands, NPS scores and many others.

The interesting part is how technology is coming to marketers’ rescue when trying to measure the impact of brand experience in non-traditional ways. For example, analytical tools supported by advances in sensor technology and AI can help brands understand customer walk-bys, dwell times in stores and/or brand activations, return visits and heat maps.

In my view, the impact of the brand experience will have to combine quantitative and qualitative elements and look at both short-term and long-term results. This will vary from brand to brand and across sectors and industries as well.

BB: One of the crucial touch points where consumers experience a brand is the retail brand experience. How can brand marketers design the next big retail experience?

HS: The challenge with building an exciting retail brand experience is to successfully merge between physical and digital worlds. This can be a real challenge given the investment in technology and strategy that needs to be done to successfully have a single view of the customer through their online and offline interactions with a brand.

Let’s take the example of a a customer who walks into a store to buy an item they have been looking up online on the store e-Commerce portal but cannot find it on the store rack. This is a truly negative brand experience that could have been avoided if the brand included “Find it in the store” capability on their eCommerce site to allow customers to know if the item they are looking up is available in the store they plan to visit in their size!

Another area where I believe many marketers have not focused their investments is store layouts. Usually store merchandisers stock and plan store layouts based on designer or brand guidance. However there are many analytical tools that helps merchandisers better design stores and stock items based on understanding store heat maps, products that are usually sold together, purchase history and what items are likely to sell out due to current consumer mood, weather or local events, etc. Leveraging such technologies can really help to both improve customer experience and also the financial success and profitability of the brand!  

Of course there is a lot to be explored in integrating emerging technologies in retail experiences like Virtual Realty (think virtual fitting rooms instead of having to actually try on the items!) and creating virtual stores with the ability to view items in 3D before purchasing them online!

But before diving in any “cool” tech, I see that marketers’ first priority to improve the retail brand experience should be to ensure the customer experience is seamless across online and offline platforms with their brand. As hard as it is to achieve, this is what will have the most positive impact on the brand experience and customer satisfaction more than any fun app, selfie screen or virtual mirror!