For the past 40 years, futurists, economists, and media mavens have debated which business strategies are best-suited for the networked, post-industrial era. In his 1971 book, Future Shock, futurist Alvin Toffler talked about the upcoming “experiential industry,” in which people in the future would be willing to allocate high percentages of their salaries to live amazing experiences.
Toffler’s prediction has proven prophetic. We are happy to visit Disneyland or pay real money for virtual goods because they delight us. Brands are symbols of experiences, and we have learned not to question brand premiums. Spending $200 for an Armani shirt makes perfect sense because the luxury experience and self-expression create an intangible value beyond cloth.
Apple has been held up as the definitive example of how to integrate a brand and its products and services to create an extraordinary company. The stock market, the ultimate arbiter of American business success, now places more value on the design-driven company than tech titans like Microsoft and Google.
At the risk of being a cliché, looking to Apple as a model also highlights the challenges facing brands that are not Apple. Few others have architected the same control of their product ecosystem. Still, the takeaway is that all companies must adopt a focus on integrating brand with product and service. From those that do it well (Amazon, Tiffany & Co.) to those that still need fine tuning (Facebook, Walmart), all brands are challenged to deliver satisfying products and service experiences.
Still, there are still major organizational roadblocks to success, including the alignment of internal teams, budgets and common definitions. Companies need to start thinking about the holistic experience between their brands, products and services. Any company can be analyzed through these lenses to evaluate the experience it creates for its customers.
The iPhone is a product that delivers services and fulfills the promise of the Apple brand. Other examples abound: Nike Fuel, Amazon Kindle and HBO GO. Put another way, a product is an experience that occurs in the moment. A service is a relationship that extends over time and across platforms and mediums. A brand is much more than the logo; it is the pattern our brains expect based on everything we have previously heard, seen, and felt.
Many organizations face structural challenges that prevent these three elements from working together harmoniously. Many brands deliver products and services across hundreds of channels to millions of customers, but few are integrated. In theory, the brand and its products and services should be designed to work in tandem; a brand’s voice and promise should inform the products that are built and the surrounding services that are delivered to customers.
The reality is much messier. Products are often designed and developed based on business requirements, then passed on to the marketing team which may or may not communicate with the brand department. Factor in the constantly evolving nature of emerging social technologies and the current ecosystem becomes even more complicated. As design consultants, a tremendous amount of the value we add is in getting these different silos to speak and attempt to align with each other. Ironically, many clients only realize this after the fact.
As designers, we are often frustrated when our visions are not implemented. To make matters worse, even though our clients want to eliminate organizational barriers to successful experience design, many stumble at implementation. They agree with practitioners’ aspirational rhetoric but hit walls creating internal consensus and accountability.
The crux of the problem is that building great experiences is everyone’s responsibility and nobody’s job. United Airlines may be losing customers and revenue for many reasons. Diagnosing the problem is one thing, mending it another. Since the brand, the products, and the services are intertwined, whose responsibility is it to fix the situation? How will success be measured?
In a perfect world, this would be the responsibility of the Chief Experience Officer. The CXO would react to the changing needs, expectations and emotions of customers, working with all internal divisions to ensure the greatest possible customer experience.
In this model, the customer experience would be owned by the CXO and extended and executed by the entire company. But is this the answer? Imagine the challenge of creating an officer level role that is cross-functional and operational but also tactical.
Rather than waiting to be invited or appointed, try this: If CXO were your title, what would you do first?
Success relies on understanding the components that create an overall experience and how those components are delivered. Because the design of that experience crosses internal divisions, this demands the breakdown of budgetary and organizational silos.
We also need to set goals and measure success in new and useful ways. The industry understands how to quantify sales, awareness, conversation, referral and click-through rates. Measuring experience is far murkier. Brands have to empathize with users to understand which elements — measurable or not — shape their experiences, and transform how they work together to create those experiences.
Hoping a CXO will swoop in and save a company is unrealistic. But we can take immediate action in the following ways.
Ditch the brand book.
The days of centrally controlled brands are over. Your brand is a pattern comprised of interfaces, interactions and experiences. This requires designing for coherence over consistency. Empowering employees to act autonomously allows them to create better experiences.
Turn your data into action.
Data, once understood, is an unbiased source of information that reveals customers’ motivations, desires and pain points. Every designer must dig into the data to discover the meaning behind the metrics. Of course, not all data is created equal. The most helpful approach begins when the right question is being asked.
Share the wealth.
Most of us fight hard for our budgets and have discrete tasks and activities assigned to them. But, if the overarching goal is to create products and services your customers will find valuable, then all departments — from product development to branding and marketing — will need to pool resources to achieve common goals.
Iterate to innovate.
Venture capitalists demand that entrepreneurs fail fast because it allows for rapid and efficient understanding of what works. Move toward a more agile approach to product and service design. This will allow you to test, refine, validate and constantly improve on the customer experience. An agile approach reduces risk while providing the feedback to innovate quickly and appropriately.
Show don’t tell.
Great experiences are the best form of advertising. Your marketing team should be just as focused on creating and improving the product and service as they are on advertising.
Ultimately, we all recognize a great experience when we encounter it, but designing your own is difficult. The days of perfect plans within a top-down hierarchy are over. Instead, we need to influence our companies to embrace shared values and product principles. Then, each of us can be a Chief Experience Officer creating memorable experiences and a cohesive, engaging brand.