The Return of the Product (Experience)
Reconnecting with consumers through the product experience
Did you ever play a Fender guitar, drive a Ford Mustang GT, listen to music on an iPod or shop in a H&M store? These are some of the high intensity brand experiences we heard from studies on how people around the world connect with brands.
Connecting with brands for lifetime relationships
Irrespective of disruptive events like the current pandemic, double-dip recessions, boycotting or backlash of brands or other events…we have discovered that Consumers still love brands – whether global or local. People use and connect to brands in different ways – some develop more intense relationships with some brands they use than others.
Which in turn raises another question…What does it mean to have an intense connection with a brand? How do you create one? It seems fair to assume that a more intensely connected customer is one whose needs are being better satisfied. So, let us find out what kinds of intense connections exist, and how to activate them.
Connecting with brands
Some example of how consumers describe the intense connections they feel with their chosen brands.
Each time when someone asks, why Lacoste, I take off my shirt and tell them to try it, so they know
This consumer’s experience of the brand occur in a context of social interaction, but what he is using to convince doubters of Lacoste’s greatness isn’t the label, it’s the sensory experience of wearing it.
I love my Starbucks, they are not just selling me coffee, they are giving me a whole experience
For many brands the product experience includes service elements – ‘product’ and ‘service’ are more than ever fluid categories.
It’s a brand to be proud of! I cannot do without Gillette, it’s part of my life or even better: it is my life. I am Gillette
This consumer is talking about closeness to the brand via the experience, of almost merging with the brand, becoming part of it.
Four modes for brand/consumer relationships
All the quotes we are reading here are from consumers whose relationships with brands are in a particular mode, that is characterised by close identification with brands, and it’s emphasis on the product or service experience. These are examples of the ‘experience mode’, and it’s one of four modes that consumer/brand relationships work in – security, affiliation, expression and experience. Each represents different consumer needs, and each is fulfilled by different aspects of branding.
The Security mode
This is perhaps the most basic form of consumer-brand connection: the brand is a guarantee of product or service quality and functionality. The need for security is fulfilled by a combination of two factors. One is functional performance – it does the job it’s meant to do. The other is authority – a wider agreement that this brand does the job best, which might be based on the brand’s heritage or reputation.
The Affiliation mode
This mode is based on a need for societal affiliation. Purely functional criteria are hygiene factors in this mode and consumers instead use brands to fulfil their needs for status, group affiliation and social identity.
The Expression mode
This mode of consumer-brand relationships is defined by brands fulfilling a consumer need for expression. Consumers in this mode use brands as vehicles for self-expression and to show individualized identity. This is a way to make a statement. The brands that can best fulfil this need have high levels of peer group approval and personal identification for the consumer.
The Experience mode
The fourth mode of consumer-brand relationships finds the brand fulfilling the consumer’s need for an intense, internalised experience. At the heart of this brand experience is the product or service experience, which is amplified by the brand’s personal meaning to the consumer.
The social role of the brand is perceived as less important – instead, the brand is used to provide personal meaning and act within a personal narrative for the consumer. It does this by providing intensified experiences during the moments of use. The experience flows from a perfect link between the values of the user and the delivery of the product or service: the brand has become an integral part of the self.
Connections through powerful experiences
An encounter between a consumer and a product is based on the fulfilment of simple functional needs – for clean clothes, for cheap food, and so on. To turn this into a relationship between a consumer and a brand, psychological needs must be fulfilled. Brands still fulfil our need for security, affiliation and personal expression.
But this is not to say the product becomes unimportant. We have seen that many ‘connections’ are underpinned by intensified product experiences – one based on the powerful product experiences that brands offer. Is this a step backwards? No – it’s an evolution, a synthesis of what we know about the functional and emotional sides of branding.
Let’s look more closely at how this works.
Amplifying the Product Experience
Where does branding fit into the experience mode? Are we saying that the softer side of branding is becoming less important? Certainly not. Branding works like a magnifying glass, a lens which enlarges and amplifies the product experience for the user, capturing the user’s imagination. But a magnifying glass on its own is of no use – you need to have something to magnify!
The foundation of the brand has to be a product experience – this is what many consumers are searching for. In the experience mode a consumer has a feeling of intense identification with the brand, possibly including a feeling of personal transformation that lasts as long as the experience.
Longer stronger relationships
Why does all this matter? Strong brand-consumer identification combined with a superb product performance creates a very hard bond to break. Consumer/brand relationships in the experience mode are stronger than relationships formed in other modes, and they may also last longer.
“If brands are looking for long term relationships they have to do things differently”
Deliver a powerful product experience and you are on the way to achieving this.
So how do you get consumers into the experience mode?
- Differentiate your product within the market
- Be consistent across all consumer touchpoints and journeys.
- Use branding and marketing to guide the consumer towards the product experience
Platforms to differentiate the product
Authenticity: The make-up of a product can be a vital point of differentiation, particularly in creating a sense of authenticity. In a more mass market context the promotion of a ‘unique recipe’ or ‘secret ingredient’ can reproduce a sense of authenticity, especially in the context of a F&B brand. This platform is especially important in parts of the world where a large parallel market in locally produced fake products exists. Here consumers must believe that the authentic brands – offer real advantages in terms of performance.
Design, UX, UI: A simple and elegant user interface is an asset to any product or service. But design is also of growing importance for products that are used frequently around the house, like household cleaners or key consumer durables. Think perhaps of the way shampoo and ketchup bottles have evolved ‘upside down’ shapes to make pouring easier. Samsung’s clamshell phones, If you remember, were an excellent example of differentiated design or of Google search, which has become the biggest brand by using its clean web design to emphasise the simplicity of its user experience and quality of search.
Sensory Excellence: Sensory pleasure is an often-neglected aspect of the product experience. It allows a brand experience to be remembered, savoured and communicated to others. Intense sensory experience is not confined to luxury products – it’s applicable to a very broad range of categories.
Innovation: Innovation on its own rarely creates a high-intensity relationship but it can be vital in introducing a consumer to a brand in the first place and keeping the consumer’s interest. A brand’s innovation activity needs to offer genuine benefit to the consumer and must genuinely enhance the product experience. But innovation can be a double-edged sword – a misplaced or needless attempt to innovate can ruin a product experience.
Consistency with consumers across the touchpoints and the customer journey
There is no point in giving a customer the best experience of their life if their next encounter with the brand is awful. Consistency doesn’t just mean making sure your brand experience is the same each time. It means making sure that every touchpoint enhances the experience. Consistency is what turns an intense experience into a lasting relationship. This applies particularly to service-based sectors. The experience must be a complete one – from booking to leaving the airport, in the case of an airline. Remember that intense, transformative experiences last throughout the use of a product – and this applies equally to services.
Using branding and marketing to guide customer towards product experience
Care: Important aspect in creating an experience mode connection is in making the product the hero of your brand’s story – to let the communications lead consumers towards the intense product experience. One way of doing this is to give the user a sense that the brand cares about them and their needs. If a user feels the brand cares for them, their identification with the product experience will be much higher.
Storytelling: The final platform is storytelling – telling a story of which your product is the hero. This helps to…’Provide continuity between product experiences’; ‘Spark the consumer’s imagination’ and ‘Amplify the experience’. All brands have a story, but we believe that to create experience mode relationships the stories should lead consumers towards the product experience.
The Heart Breakers
While we have the seen the recipe to offer a successful ‘product experience’, we should also explore the reasons why consumers reject brands they once loved. Changes in the brand, the consumer or the environment can all spark rejection. The different modes of consumer / brand relationships are each vulnerable to some of the following ‘heartbreakers’’.
- A decline in product or service quality, or inconsistency, can lead to a betrayal of consumer trust.
- Any brand is vulnerable to a crisis and a brand’s response to this can make or break its relationship with customers. Respond late or poorly and consumers can turn away. This also applies to personal crises affecting only a single consumer – rude service, for instance.
- Brands need to stay fresh to prosper – or they may well lose their high-intensity connections with consumers.
- Even if a brand is offering high quality functional performance, an inappropriate or irritating brand story can frustrate and turn off consumers – get your story right!
- A change in circumstance or life-stage means that a consumer rejects a previously cherished brand. An upwardly mobile individual might change car or clothes brands, for instance.
- The behaviour of a brand or its parent company can have a significant effect on the relationships consumers form with it, as the sense of personal identification with the brand is strong and can be damaged by a perceived clash of values.
- Sometimes, wider cultural issues, which are outside the control of brand managers.
Fulfil these needs and one can…‘Create lifetime brand relationships’; ‘Assert control of your brand’s meaning’ and ‘Guard against the deal-breakers’.
“a brand is what a brand does”