Experience Brands

What every service brand must become

Hotels, restaurants, shops, airlines, malls, cruise ships, hospitals… services like these represent the most exciting opportunity in branding. Complicated and simple, easy and difficult, branding a consumer service is going to be the marketing challenge for the next 10 years. Unfortunately, in most cases – barring a few honourable exceptions – a consumer services brand is marketed like any fast-moving consumer good. In other words, with advertising and other forms of communication, promotions and PR – all of which adds up to a purely external, cosmetic form of branding. The reason for this is because we’re ignoring the basic character of a consumer services product, which unlike an FMCG immediately involves all 5 senses.

Think of the way in which a person experiences a consumer services product – a mall for example. First, she may see an advertisement for a movie or a sale. If the advertisement is on television, it’ll engage her sense of sight and sound, otherwise it’s just her eyes. But when she enters the mall… how her world changes! She is simultaneously assaulted at every level. To illustrate, imagine that she is struck deaf for the first 30 seconds. So how will she experience the mall? Through her eyes – and what a lot is there to see! Her head will be swivelling around, left to right, up and down, taking in the flashing lights, the ‘SALE!’ signs, the uniforms, the glistening escalator, the glass lifts, the beautifully lit windows full of jewellery, clothes, shoes, food, cosmetics, sports goods and any number of other enticing products. Thousands of brands will be screaming out their names – Nike! Reebok! Adidas! Levi’s! Wrangler! McDonald’s! Pizza Hut! Shoppers Stop! Rolex! Omega! Simultaneously she will be looking at the people around her – young, old, short, tall, she looks at the older women in their kanjeevarams or swank salwars, the teeny-boppers in their tight jeans and skimpy tops, the young studs with their biceps bulging, the older men with their bush shirts hanging out of the trousers, she’ll see people from every corner of the country from the pretty, fashionable, young things from the North- East to the more conservative young ladies of Chennai to the stylish Delhi girls. Then suddenly, her sense of hearing kicks in and she starts hearing things – music, announcements, people talking in the many languages of India, the clatter of the escalators, the hum of the elevators, the staccato tapping of high heels on the linoleum… With it, comes her sense of smell and she inhales a mix of various scents that have been sprayed, biscuits baking, the smell of fresh corn or popcorn, the smell of new leather, new clothes, floor cleaning fluid, sweat, dirt and in many cases, urine. Under her feet, she can feel the difference in the hardness of the floor or the softness of carpeting. Then, possibly, she’ll enter the food court and she’ll get a taste of the mall – which could be anything that she chooses. Of course, she may have already been tempted by the smell of the biscuits or the corn or popcorn and sampled some. But, in essence, all her senses have been engaged, which is exciting, interesting and what makes the whole experience so vivid and so different that she wants an encore on a reasonably regular basis.

But has the mall done anything that will actually ensure that she will definitely return or done anything to make any of those experiences memorable? Absolutely not.

Take a trip to another experience brand on the other hand – a church. When you walk in you hear the sounds of either prayer, bells or if you’re lucky a choir practicing, but the sounds are low, reverential. While you stand around, you smell the scent of incense, a faint aroma of wine and burning candles. Then you walk in and see sights that communicate the one point program that they have – to sell the idea of Jesus, Mother Mary and the Saints – through stained glass window, icons, statues, the memorials to long-dead people, the huge, awe-inspiring organ, glowing in that dim, dense light. At the same time, you take in the altar, the pews, the old, polished wood and the tattered, well-thumbed prayer books. Then you feel the graves through your shoes, you sense the rough stone, you sit on the smooth, old wood – and hear it creak. Then the service starts. And you hear the priest’s voice echoing through that space, the voices of the faithful and their amens and their chorus with their prayers. You taste the wine and the bread, you smell the incense. It’s all calculated to engage each and every sense to connect you intimately to the brand, Christianity. Your experience of the Christianity brand is a dictated experience and the experience doesn’t change much over the world. It’s the same in church after church, whether it’s a small chapel in Ootacamund or a grand cathedral in Chartres.

On the other hand, there is no effort to dictate the experience in most retail brands. One exception is Kingfisher Airlines which has gone partially down that road. The ladies in red, the idea of calling passengers ‘guests the red suitcases, even the visual and emotional buttons like Dr. Mallya’s welcome speech… but could they do more? Could they have a different smell in their aircraft? A specially developed air freshener which hints at beer perhaps? Could they serve non-alcoholic beer along with the other cold drinks – an element of specific and immediately identifiable taste? What more could they do to brand Kingfisher Airlines irretrievably, irrevocably and completely? How could they brand the food? The d’ecor? The feel of the planes? And how can they do this while simultaneously expressing the brand identity? That is the interesting part – the challenge – how do you match the various sensory experiences with your brand’s values? With Kingfisher it may be relatively easy, but how about a mall, a hospital or a hotel? How do you make each of those unique, and inimitable? That’s the challenge – to give an experience brand a position and make sure that each consumer contact point reflects that position.

So how do we, at Vertebrand, handle service brands?

Our process would involve an extensive research and analysis of your brand, its consumers, your internal strengths and weaknesses, the environment which would lead us to an appropriate brand identity. Then we would analyse the consumer touch points that affect your brand and your business and try to understand their relative importance in light of the brand identity. Finally, we would try to recommend how each touch point should be engineered so that each consumer interaction will reinforce the brand identity.

Take an example of how you might do that in the case of a luxury mall – where your brand positioning is summed up by the word, luxury. When your consumer enters, she is greeted by a quiet, discreet, hushed atmosphere; there is only the tinkle of Western classical music, no loud announcements because there is some kind of sound-damping equipment in the floors and walls that absorbs sound. The escalators and elevators seem to move more quietly and discreetly. Even the people in the mall seem to be the quiet, sophisticated type, who would understand the difference between Chanel and Paco Rabanne, Armani and Marks & Spencer, Axe and Jovan, a Chablis and a Burgundy, a Meerschaum and a Briar or a Brioni and an Cifonelli. The brands she’ll see reflect the customers, there is no Titan or Timex instead she’ll see Rolex, no Sansui or Sony, but definitely a Bang & Olafsen or Nakamichi, there will be no Shopper’s Stop, instead, she’ll see a Harrod’s or an Au Printemps. When she inhales, she’ll take in the smell of some sophisticated perfume; a combination of the smell of leather and other expensive aromas. A man, immaculately dressed in a black jacket and tie greets her with a plate full of some expensive canapes as she walks in, along with perhaps a glass of champagne. The floor is covered with a soft, carpet into which her feet sink with delicious ease. If all this happens your customer doesn’t need advertising to tell her that this is a luxury brand – her senses tell her that anyway.

It’s the difference between seeing a man standing on a rooftop and shouting, “I’m funny! I’m funny!” and Groucho Marx saying, “Before I begin I should tell you I was born at a very young age.” What’s even more interesting is that because all her senses have been telling her this, the young lady knows this mall is a luxury brand emotionally and viscerally – not just intellectually. If the experience is appropriate and communicates your brand values, you’ll have a consumer who has the brand in her veins and her bones – not just in her mind – it’s a relationship that could approach the level of intimacy and depth of a religion. And that is what we believe a great service brand can do to a consumer – if it realizes that it cannot afford to remain at that level – it can (and must) become an experience brand.

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