Season three wrap-up: How to build a brand experience
Season three of the podcast featured my most wide-ranging conversations yet. I talked to guests about topics such as naming, social influence, and fusing brand and culture. Like last season, I talked to a mix of popular authors and speakers, like Jeremy Miller and Denise Lee Yohn, as well as some people I’ve worked with closely at agencies like Interbrand, Siegel+Gale, and BrandingBusiness. Thank you to all my guests this season:
- Jeremy Miller, founder of Sticky Branding; author of Sticky Branding and Brand New Name
- Ken Pasternak, president of Two by Four (formerly president and COO of Marshall Strategy)
- Fabian Geyrhalter, principal and founder of FINIEN; author of How to Launch a Brand and Bigger Than This
- Caren Williams, independent brand consultant
- Dennis Hahn, Chief Strategy Officer at Liquid Agency
- Ana Andjelic, strategy executive; PhD in sociology
- Alan Brew, founding partner at BrandingBusiness
- Myra El-Bayoumi, strategy director at Character
- Denise Lee Yohn, brand leadership expert; author of What Great Brands Do and Fusion
Thank you, too, for listening, sharing your thoughts, following along the website, social media, and the newsletter.
The theme of this season, broadly speaking, was brand experience. In this wrap-up episode, I walk through what a brand experience is and how to create or improve one.
First off, how should we define brand experience? About a year ago, before this season started, I posted the following definition: “The totality of all sensations, feelings, thoughts, and actions evoked by a brand.” That pretty much aligns with other definitions I’ve seen from the likes of Marty Neumeier. (His, from The Dictionary of Brand, is “All the interactions people have with a product, service, or organization.”) The episode kicks off with Ken Pasternak and Caren Williams each going into detail on how they think about brand experience.
Next, we get to the four steps for creating (or strengthening) a brand experience. Sounds simple, but each step requires some serious work. In the episode, each step is fleshed out and supported with audio clips from the season’s interviews.
Four steps to create or improve a brand experience
- Get the brand strategy right (should a strategy platform include experience principles?)
- Outline the context within which the brand will be experienced (e.g., customer journey mapping)
- Brainstorm ideas for the brand experience (often takes place in a collaborative work session with the client)
- Implement, measure, and modify (organize ideas by impact/effort, mock up or prototype ideas, and always be iterating)
To learn more about brand experience and the guests from season three, listen to each full episode or read transcripts on this site. You’ll also find a growing list of books recommended by guests this season and last.
Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors).
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ROB MEYERSON: First off, how should we define brand experience? About a year ago before this season started, I posted a definition on the How Brands Are Built website. The totality of all sensations, feelings, thoughts, and actions evoked by a brand. That pretty much aligns with other definitions I’ve seen from the likes of Marty Neumeier. Let’s listen to a few of this season’s guests give their definitions. Here’s Ken Pasternak, president of Two by Four, and Caren Williams, an independent brand strategist, each going into some detail on how they think about brand experience.
KEN PASTERNAK: Actually, our definition of brand experience has to start with our definition of brand. As you know, there’s so many different perspectives on that particular word. We define brand as the intersection of promise and perception. If you can make a clear and ownable promise to the world, you’re going to set some expectations and you’re going to create certain perceptions. When you deliver on that promise, the expectations are met and your brand starts to take on meaning. It starts to take on that emotional quality that so many brands, especially high-performing brands, are known for.
Brand experience then becomes all the different ways in which you make that promise real. It’s in the way you talk about it, it’s in your presence across touchpoints, and it’s about the process of successful promise fulfillment when the customer or other stakeholder interacts with you. Again, it evolves from that brand being a mark of quality to brand experience being a way in which a promise can actually live out in the real world.
CAREN WILLIAMS: I don’t actually know what the textbook definition of brand experience is. What I always say is making it real and actually bringing it to life for your audience, connecting the dots across everything you do.
It has two benefits. The first one is, as a brand strategist, we can look at a pyramid or a platform or something and we’re like, “Yes. I totally get it and I know what to do with it.” I think a lot of people look at that and they’re like, “Okay, that sounds nice but what do I do?” I’ve literally had people say, “Now, what do I do?”
For brand experience, it’s that next level. This is what defines you as a company or as a brand. This is your ethos. What is the experience that you want your audience to have? It’s not different from that. It’s just flip-flopping thinking about, “Who are we? Who am I? Now, what do I want people to experience?” If I say I’m a really friendly person, that’s me. I wouldn’t say to someone, “I’m a friendly person.” I would say, “I’m going to always greet people by their first name. I am going to ask them how they’re doing.” It’s like taking it from what does it mean to you to what does it mean to them.
ROB: In the world.
CAREN: In the world, yeah, to your audience and really connecting the dots.
ROB: Now, that we’ve heard some definitions, let’s talk about how to create a brand experience. Based on all the conversations from this season, it really comes down to four steps. It sounds simple, but each step requires some serious work as you’ll hear.
Step one, get the brand strategy right. I know it sounds obvious but it can’t be glossed over. It’s interesting to hear different points of view on whether or how the brand strategy should speak to that eventual brand experience directly. In other words, should we be putting something like experience principles into our strategy platforms?
Let’s listen to Dennis Hahn, chief strategy officer of Liquid Agency, and you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about.
DENNIS HAHN: I would say six or seven years ago, we started stumbling on this need, with working with brands like Skype, when we rebranded Skype or Nordstrom. The experience that their customers have are the things that actually have the most resonance with what the brand is about, the meaning of the brand versus the communications or the other things you might find in a typical brand platform.
So, we started to include a hook into the brand platform for experience. We started with experience principles, which makes a ton of sense because you need principles that guide the experience. But we found that putting the experience principles in the brand platform alongside of expression and attributes gets a little confusing because you have two lists of things and sets of principles. If you know these things, people have a hard time, “What do I do with these? What I do with those?”
So, we evolved it and instead, we have an aspiration for the experience, a higher level thing we call ideal brand experience. At the end of the day, this is what the outcome is. This is how we want the audience to feel as a result of having the experience with this brand. That sits at the top of the food chain, if you will, for experience.
ROB: Dennis went on to describe an experience principles framework separate from the brand platform. It includes that ideal brand experience as well as experience principles for both employees and customers.
Next, we’ll hear from Myra El-Bayoumi, Strategy Director at Character, in San Francisco.
MYRA EL-BAYOUMI: We do include (almost every time) behaviors within our positioning work, so if this in our purpose, it’s easy to think that we believe. If this is why the world should choose us, how should people behave within the organization to serve that purpose and pursue that purpose? Also, along the lines of experience principles the way you just talked about, how are those behaviors apply to the brand itself?
ROB: Maybe it’s six of one, half dozen of the other but it sounds like there’s no consensus on whether something like experience principles belong within a strategy platform or in some separate framework. Then again, maybe the strategy platform itself is not as relevant as it once was.
Here’s Alan Brew, founding partner at BrandingBusiness on corporate narrative, which he calls the evolution of brand positioning. On a communications front, at least, he argues that corporate narrative can drive consistent execution across a more diverse set of touchpoints, presumably without any need for experience principles.
ALAN BREW: At one time, it was simpler. There are certain kinds of execution you couldn’t take from that platform, the positioning platform. What has happened is the need for greater traction. The whole concept of positioning has morphed into—on the basis of this research, on the basis of this positioning platform—what is the story we tell externally? What do we do with this? How do we use this in our marketing, in our corporate communications, in our speeches, in our publications? What are the components of the narrative that we need to be building into everything we communicate with? It’s become more of a fungible externalized set of strategic components rather than just this inert strategic document that lives on somebody’s shelf.
ROB: No matter what from your strategy takes, there’s broad alignment that needs to be complete and well-thought-through before starting to work on the experience.
That gets us to step two, outline the context within which the brand will be experienced. Here’s Jeremy Miller, founder of Sticky Branding and author of Brand New Name, and Caren Williams again, each describing a straightforward way of considering context.
JEREMY MILLER: It’s the customer journey, it’s journey mapping. What you’re looking at is from the customer’s life cycle, from the purchase behavior to how they become a customer, to how they leave you, is mapping out what are those critical engagement points.
CAREN: Now, let’s make a list, many as we can think of, our core customer interaction points or as you call them, touchpoints. Let’s make a list of all of those. Where do we want someone to experience the brand? Where do we want the brand to show up? We literally just make a list of those. Sometimes it’s a worksheet, sometimes it’s on a white board, form of a video, we’re using some sort of Google Sheet or something.
ROB: But a customer journey map isn’t the only way to think about context. Ana Andjelic, Strategy Executive and Doctor of Sociology, and Denise Lee Yohn, bestselling author of What Great Brands Do, and Fusion, each presented different approaches. Ana, who you’ll hear first, talked about the brand in the context of culture and competition.
ANA ANDJELIC: Once you define that promise by looking at the what are the value of the company first, then you’re looking at what is happening in culture, what are the conversation. Is wellness important right now and self-care? Maybe unplugging and slowing down or what is travel? What is important in culture right now? What is that conversation? You look again and what is the category doing? Or where do the best practices come from? Do they come outside of the category? And then, why?
ROB: And Denise talked about the tool she uses to organize touchpoints based on who’s responsible for them within an organization.
DENISE LEE YOHN: The Brand Touchpoint Wheel is a tool that I use with my clients to identify all of those touchpoints, all of the different ways that someone from the outside world experiences your brand.
The wheel looks almost like concentric circles, where within those circles describe the departments, or groups, or the functions within your organization that lead up to what are responsible for those touchpoints. The tool becomes not only identifying what those touchpoints are and identifying who’s responsible, but then it can be used as a tool for prioritizing, optimizing, and then ultimately tracking improvements and tracking performance across those touchpoints.
ROB: Okay. Once you’ve outlined that context, whether it’s a journey map, an examination of a relevant cultural trends or something like the Brand Touchpoint Wheel or all of the above, it’s time to start brainstorming ideas for the brand experience. That is step three.
Here’s Ken Pasternak, again, explaining the basic premise.
KEN: When you have a clear premise, you can develop along with some ideas very quickly. You think about audience, you think about touchpoints, you think about product, you think about customer journey, and where you’re actually engaging with the customer. You can develop a long list and it’s good to keep a long list because you want to see the universe of possibilities.
ROB: And once again, Myra El-Bayoumi, talking about one of the ways this brainstorming often takes place in a collaborative workshop with the client.
MYRA: I think what’s becomes even more exciting is when we do these activation workshops, which we don’t do every time but whenever we can. A lot of shops do something similar, where we actually bring our clients and once we’ve nailed the positioning, maybe we’ve nailed the other pieces as well or maybe we’re earlier in the process.
We set up stations in our conference room or whatever space we happen to be in, that are reflective of specific channels or important touchpoints for that brand, and we go around set up huge cross functional teams from the client side, our entire cross functional team who worked on it, and brainstormed the implications of the positioning on each of these things. While we may not actually do influencer strategy, we do plenty of brainstorming on what social media should look like, what are the types of influencers we would want to work with, and what are the implications for how the experience you’ve come to like in a retail environment.
ROB: Caren Williams described a similar kind of workshop and provided a few tips on what to do with people having trouble coming up with original ideas for the brand.
CAREN: If people are stuck, sometimes I’ll say for example,“All right, let’s take your landing page. How do we want to change this so that it really represents the brand that we’ve just created?” Usually the ideas are like, “I don’t know, I’m thinking about normal things,” or, “Nothing really inspirational coming up.” You can say, “Okay, what could be the worst landing page that we could come up with that would really just not represent the brand?”
For some reason, it’s easier. It’s like when you ask them a question they’re like, “Well, I don’t know what I want to do but I know what I don’t want to do.” Definitely, you take that and you say, “Now, what’s the opposite of that?” There are different ways, just sort of creative brain game where you can get to the end result without just saying, “What should this look like based on the brand?”
Another way is just not putting so much pressure on one person or one team to come up with something so you may say, “Okay, you guys take people. You can bring forms around this area.” Then, you take their ideas and take it to the next group or to another person and let them build.
ROB: Another way to spur thinking which Caren just alluded to is to think of touchpoints in categories. At Interbrand where Caren and I worked together, we talked about people, places, products, and communications. You can even create a matrix with these four categories against the customer journey. As an example, taking a step like point of purchase in a retail shop, say, what does a customer experience in terms of the people they interact with? The feel of the store? Or the checkout counter? The product they are about to purchase? And the communications that they see at the register?
Once you’ve got your long list of ideas, you can move to the final step. Step four: Implement, measure, and modify. How do you decide which ideas to implement first? Here’s Ken Pasternak once again, talking about a simple framework to organize your ideas.
KEN: Then there’s a particular tool that’s very simple again, but I found very effective in prioritizing the elements as it most effectively help you orchestrate a brand experience. It’s just a 2×2 matrix. On one axis, you have low impact and high impact. On the other axis, you have low effort and high effort.
You begin to map out all those possibilities that you’ve just listed into that matrix. You’re going to have low effort-high impact possibilities. You’re going to have high effort-high impact possibilities. You’re going to have low effort-low impact and high effort-low impact. If you think about it, the high effort-low impact category are things that come off the list really quickly because they’re time- and resource-intensive and they don’t really make much of a difference. So, your able to begin to focus in.
ROB: Both Dennis Hahn and Fabian Geyrhalter, principal at FINIEN, talked about prototyping the ideas which is a relatively low-effort, low-cost way of thinking through which ideas will work best, and getting client buy-in. You may remember prototyping as a theme from Season 2.
Here’s Fabian talking about what his firm chooses to prototype or mock-up.
FABIAN GEYRHALTER: That changes from client to client. Some things are standard. What does a client need to launch? They need an email signature, they need a business card, they need a landing page of sorts, they need iconography, they need patterns, they need a visual language, they need social media. We actually don’t set up social media accounts but we fake their accounts. We say, “Here would be the first six Instagram tiles. Here’s how you use the images. Here’s the type of clothes you would use. Here’s what you would do with Instagram. Here’s the text that you would actually use for it.”
We write little bits of copy but it changes completely from client to client. I asked them before the phase. I’m like, “Look, you’re in fashion. I guess we’re going to do hand tags and we’re going to do labels,” or, “Your startup is a new business for you. We need to create pitch decks,” or if you’re in ecommerce, “We’re going to do fun packing tapes or cool cards that we flow into the order.” That’s where we get the fun.
ROB: Lastly, Jeremy Miller provided a much needed reminder. If you really want a killer brand experience, you can’t afford to think of it as a one-time creation. It’s about constant measurement and refinement.
JEREMY: I think of the total brand experience or the total customer experience as total quality management. Everything that you create in the planning stage or at the boardroom is a hypothesis. Until you get it out into the world and get data, get customer feedback, and actually see what moves the sales needle, then you’re not really getting anything validated.
When you look at the total customer experience, it is a living strategy. It is constantly evolving, you’re constantly improving, you’re responding to what’s going on in the marketplace.
ROB: There you have it. Four steps to create and maintain a great brand experience. (1) Get the brand strategy right. (2) Outline the context within which the brand will be experienced. (3) Brainstorm ideas for the brand experience. And (4) implement, measure, and modify. Easy, right? Maybe it’s easier said than done.
I’ll leave you with a couple of final reminders from this season’s guest. First is that it is possible to overthink brand experience, to over do it. Don’t take this process so far that your brand feels like it’s trying too hard to create an experience. Second and relatedly, make sure your ideas are more than skin deep. Think about actions and behaviors just as much, if not more than words and images. How will the brand strategy be substantiated? How will it be baked into the company’s culture at the deepest levels?
Keep these steps and bits of advice in mind as you’re creating or working on your brand, and you’ll have a head start on creating a top-notch brand experience.
That’s it for this wrap-up episode and for Season 3. There’s plenty more where this came from. If you want more, I highly recommend listening to each episode from this season or reading the transcripts on howbrandsarebuilt.com. On the site, you’ll find plenty of the additional written content about brand strategy, naming, brand architecture, all your favorite topics […], as well as a fully updated list of books recommended by guests from this season and last season.
Thanks again for listening, especially to those of you who I’m beginning to think of as How Brands Are Built Insiders. Those of you who’ve subscribed and signed-up for the newsletter, who comment and connect constantly on social media, and have maybe even left a rating and review on iTunes. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
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