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Brand experience by design

February 12, 2009

design-book2Several months ago,  Robert Brunner spoke to our company about a number of things related to design.   

I wasn’t one of the first 100 to arrive at the assembly, so I didn’t get a free copy of his book, but his presentation was so compelling,  I ordered a copy on my own. 

Turn to virtually any page  of the book and come away with another example of the overarching message  that a successful brand applies design to create an overall experience, not just a product.

A clear vision of what the brand is about, what interactions should be like, and how the sum of all facets of product, service,  marketing, advertising must unswervingly communicate and deliver that experience.    Great companies have a clear sense of this in the beginning, but sometimes go awry.   Why?  Their executives become too focused on the operations of the business, pursuing market share, revenue and profitability as objectives, often mixing these together and communicating them as strategic directives  that sound something like  “Grow share in  our profitable segments“.     Sounds ok, but how?  And that’s where a company can get lost.  Elements of the experience become muddled and compromised.

” You don’t sacrifice the experience for growth; you drive growth from the quality of the experience”

Several  examples in the book which I found compelling were Home Depot and Starbucks – great brands which drifted off course and are now working to recapture the secret sauce of their original business model .    Home Depot began with a great vision  communicated through their advertising tagline “You can do it, we can help!”.   Stores were staffed with retired contractors and other professionals who knew the trades, the products, and could provide guidance and help to shoppers.  The Home Depot experience was about personal empowerment and project success, not just about buying lumber, paint, or a new kitchen faucet at a big orange store.

A new CEO shifted focus to efficiency in order to boost profitability and fuel growth.   Among others, opportunities to reduce costs  were found by bringing in more entry level employees and replacing some of the check out lines with automated self checkouts .   Customers soon found it more difficult to get help in the stores as there were fewer, less knowledgeable associates available.   Absent  the encouraging experts who bolstered customer confidence and the friendly faces at checkout,  “We can help” began to feel more like “You’re on your own, and good luck with all that”. 

I frequently shop at the Home Depot and have done so for over 15 years. While building my house during 2004-2006, I visited the store almost daily.   The change in associates was less noticeable to me perhaps as I generally only needed them to help with bulk purchases – “I’ll take a pallet of mortar mix, and 100 sheets of OSB…”, but I’m a traditionalist when it comes to check out and will always use the staffed contractor check out vs any of the automated self check outs.    My behavior may reflect another challenge for companies – how to change customer thinking about things they are used to.    For me, self checkout is a take away – the store is in effect, taking a step away from me and delivering less service than I am used to.  It can be argued that by reducing labor, the goods can be sold for less.  While this is a benefit, it isn’t demonstrated conclusively as part of the customer experience.   It might need to be made tangible – suppose the self check out provided an on the spot 5% discount on all items scanned?  That would have value for me, but it still begs the question as to whether that move is consistent with the overall customer experience the brand is seeking to create.   Is it part of the design?

Starbucks  successfully provided a unique experience at an admittedly premium price, but got lost in the quest to grow the business, revenue and profitability.  The more locations that opened, the less exclusive and unique the experience became.  The diversification of the product line, and inclusion of sandwiches and other items diluted the experience – as other smells reduce the impact of the brewing coffee, and merchandising and displays disrupted the clean design of the stores.   Cost cutting measures commoditized the experience to the point that it became about the coffee.    Competitors quickly appeared, and suddenly coffee sans the greater experience wasn’t worth $4 a cup.

While I’ve never been a fan of Starbucks coffee,  I have visited Caribou Coffee on several occassions and noted the decor and amenities of the store were deliberately crafted to make the customer feel welcome.   Take a moment and click through the links to both sites?  The Starbucks video collage presents evocative, stylized images of the elements of the product and people having an experience.  Caribou is obviously on point as well – it’s presentation delivers messages like “Taste our passion in every cup”, and “Indulge in a total coffee experience”.   Note the focus on experience – the pictures show customers in an environment having an experience that was thoughtfully designed.

What would a text on design be without numerous reference to all things Apple.?  Another company that rose, fell, and rose again because Jobs as CEO understood that design was about more than just the products – that it was about  experience, relationship,  the way Apple as a brand made it’s customers feel.  These points were all designed.

In this increasingly competitive time, I see companies taking the operations focused route – cutting costs, compromising and commoditizing products, drafting confused and murky strategies to pursue markets which are not aligned with their original and core brand values.     If  points of differentiation become cost saving targets and are traded away to align with competitors as a way to reduce costs, then the best that a brand can hope to achieve is to win the coin toss with it’s competitors.  

From such a starting point, any stumble in closing the sale, delivering the product or service on time, or in supporting it all subtract from the experience.  These experience points aren’t just check boxes on a list to be performed by the lowest cost outsourced provider, but moments of truth in the ongoing relationship with the customer that define the brand.  What kind of experience does this lead to?  Is it a thoughtfully designed experience, or something rather jumbled and random which reflects what the experience has become, a commoditized group of elements strung together?

Times are tough, no doubt about that.   But to those who say they can’t afford to consider these points… I say that you can’t afford not to.  The companies who will survive consolidation and take market share from competitors are the ones who create a compelling positive brand experience – an experience that creates buying behavior not driven by coupons, discounts and concessions.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 13, 2009 5:46 am

    hear, hear!   i’m reminded of a few discussions you and i had last year about a certain company having a perpetual sale on their products and how it would kill the brand.   sure, the VP of sales may have been turning a profit at the time, but how did it pan out in the end?   was it worth competing at the bottom of the market or did someone’s sidearm ultimately drive a lead slug in their foot?

    it’s frustrating to see so many companies compete on price as their number one factor.   apple may not make the best products out there but they have a damn good business model revolving around design.   hell, apple could make a billet aluminum pile of dog shit with hidden LEDs and authentic odors and people would still buy it as long as it looked cool, made owners feel cool, had good support behind it, and had a price to match.

    churbuck says it’s easy to be critical.   he’s right.   however, it makes me wonder what would happen if designers had more control over some of the day-to-day decisions made in certain companies’ board rooms.   after all, it’s the product that sells the company, and who better to know the products and their projected market aspects than the designers themselves?

    with that said, i ordered a copy of this book tonight.   this makes #2 in my library of “markitude media.”   in trade, i have a few suggestions of my own which i should send your way.   hmm… blog subject, perhaps? 😉

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