Traditionally, marketing has operated on the premise that brands are messages to be communicated and broadcast. Yet consumers experience a service and a business through every interaction they have with it, not just marketing communications.
"Products are built in factories; brands are built in the mind," said Walter Landor, arguably the inventor of modern branding.
However, customers are becoming (a) more cynical about the messages pumped out and (b) more demanding about the product or service. At the same time, the proliferation of brands and the dwindling perceived differences between them means it’s much harder to win the quality or price position war, particularly as margins are squeezed. Everything now has to be very good AND really great value.
You can do all the brand expression you like but the reality is the service and the experience is now the selling factor. The customer experience is the brand.
So, if a business only focuses on the message (what the brand says it is) and ignores the experience (what the brand does) and indeed the value proposition itself (what the business is actually offering) then it can't truly say it is in control of its brand. If branding is about engendering perception then 'branding' is more than communication – it must include the design and management of the complete customer experience, or the delivery of the service itself.
However, it’s not a question of brand proposition (what we want the world to believe) versus service proposition (what customers need and value). The objective is for them to be aligned. Problems arise when there is a misalignment between the expectations set by the brand and the experience that it delivers. The aim is to reduce the dissonance between the ‘brand proposition’ and the ‘service proposition’, which, if large, is one driver of dissatisfaction.
Customers won’t thank you if your service proposition doesn’t match your brand proposition.
Too many marketers are still in the mode of trying to influence the experience through personality and principles alone, rather than engaging with the structural challenges of how the service is delivered. And there is also still a sense that consumers are to be influenced to perceive the brand in a certain way, rather than brand perception being a product of the service design and the experience.
Branding should be about engendering perception and if you believe it is, then you must consider branding to be an aspect of customer experience management (CEM) – and not the other way around.
Take Uber. It started from a brilliant idea for a service – the brand isn’t actually its strongest asset in this sense. What people buy in to is the service. The brand is purely its identity. It doesn’t even appear to have any values, and if it does, it’s not trading on them. More established, heritage brands often seem to come at it from the brand outwards – “what do we need people to believe about us?” – with the first instinct to answer this question simply being to tell them through large ad campaigns. Instead they should be asking: “What would make a really great service or experience for customers?” – getting that into place, promoting it, and then making that the brand.
The service and experience is Uber’s brand. The service is valued so highly that over 850,000 people have signed a petition to save the service in London. Uber has achieved this valued status with next to no brand marketing.
If you contrast a high street retailer with Amazon, which has built a massive global business through speed of fulfilment, you can see how service is vastly important. Amazon “the brand” is selling the service model. It’s not shoving its values at you hoping they’ll stick, it’s talking about the experience of shopping with them being easy and the experience being great. Therefore, the notion of brand is far less important. Its customers are buying into service. You can design a great brand in response to a business need and based on great customer insight and you can buy great creative, but if the service design and the customer experience don’t deliver customers will smell a rat.
Great marketing can prop-up an average service model and experience, but a great service model and a great experience is its own marketing.
A brand like Amazon can move into the food grocery space because it has a proven reliable, fast, good value for money service model and a clear proposition, which it can diversify and scale because consumers now believe in it. People will happily buy groceries from Amazon, assuming that alongside electronics, beauty and the other household goods it sells, it’s going to get food delivered reliably too. In terms of getting from A to B, Uber was such a customer-centred, easy to engage with service proposition to begin with that UberEats did not seem like a stretch. The take up was quick, vast and the experience felt seamless to the customer.
Through the 90s, branding became the thing that every service business invested in. We’re coming out of that phase now and we see evidence of this because companies that traditionally spent millions on brand building are now finding that the dial is no longer moving. The winners are those businesses that either innovate the service model or have mastered customer experience – or both. The reliance on branding is waning as customers focus on the designable qualities of a great service: easy, personal, enjoyable, nurturing even and a sense that the business is taking care of their interests.
The brand proposition isn’t enough anymore, you now have to be able to uphold it with a strong service proposition or the message won’t seem genuine. Is there a stronger brand in the UK taxi space than the London cabbie? They are now struggling with the challenge of a totally new competitive service. No amount of rebranding is going to help claw business back from Uber. They now need to compete on service and the design of this is the differentiator.
Joe Heapy is co-founder of Engine Service Design