Whether you are in marketing and advertising or product design and management, it is impossible to avoid the term ‘customer experience’.
The two words litter agency pitches, vendor websites, trade press and conferences and, increasingly, job titles.
Improving customer experience is not a novel concept, but it has become more important as digital technology has increased competitive pressure in almost every market.
Aaron Dignan, investor and writer, puts it as follows:
“As products and the means to create them have become digitized (often referred to as software eating the world), production capability has grown more accessible and portable.
“And the acceleration of that trend (driven by Moore’s Law) means that every single day it gets easier for someone else to compete with your product or service, and to do it better, faster, and cheaper.”
To provide an illustrative example, online travel agents made it quicker and easier to book a holiday than sitting down with a real person.
Then online travel agents continued to develop more sophisticated booking engines, websites and apps, offering information, personalisation, better pricing and so on (all enabled by advancements in digital technology).
This trend for improving customer experience is dramatic enough to be a driver of new businesses all on its own.
Tod Francis, MD at Shasta Ventures, states “there are large companies to be built by offering new, innovative and superior customer experiences to large markets, regardless of how competitive the sector already is or how successful the founders have been before.”
In other words, an Uber taxi travels no quicker than another private hire vehicle, but the experience wrapped around the journey is far superior.
So, where does advertising fit in?
In an interview with Rishad Tobaccowala, chief strategist at Publicis Groupe, he addresses this new focus on experience.
“People increasingly want access rather than ownership,” he says. “That changes the way you speak to people. It’s not one sale, you have to keep them happy. You need a continued good experience.”
“As a result of that you need more investment in utility services and a superior product and less in advertising.”
Does this mean advertising is diminishing in importance? Well, it is probably more accurate to say that in a world where any company can compete, effective advertising can be a differentiator.
Crappy, uninspired advertising may somehow have been worth something 15 years ago – it was airtime, it was eyeballs. Not any more.
As Rishad comments, “If you have a superior product and service and fantastic content and storytelling you can get it distributed. So spend more money on content, utility and services and less in messaging and media.”
So the caveat is that advertising (and marketing as a whole) must be built on (or helping to build) a strong, meaningful and trustworthy brand.
The festishisation of digital media over ‘traditional’ media, or the focus on the technology behind programmatic or the reach behind social, without meaningful metrics – these are all symptoms of an advertising industry that has at times lost its grip on reality.
Does your brand have a purpose?
Most companies have a mission statement. But you may find it difficult to recall your own.
Pre-digital, in a less globalised world, businesses were better connected to their mission statements.
Retailers may even have had their mission statement nailed to the wall to remind all customers and staff (I’ve seen Kiehl’s do this in recent times).
This idea of a company purpose is about more than simply guiding impactful advertising.
Back to Aaron Dignan’s Medium post, where he puts ‘purpose’ at the top of a hierarchy of five P’s that define a ‘responsive operating system’ – exhibited within responsive companies (such as those that define new customer experiences).
As Dignan puts it, responsive operating systems are ‘manifest in a visionary (not commercial) Purpose that guides an agile (not linear) Process that enables People who make (not manage) Products built to evolve (not built to last) which become Platforms for the world (not just your company) to build upon.’
These companies have often started this way from scratch, unencumbered by what Dignan characterises as ‘legacy processes that enforce bureaucracy, command-and-control structures, waterfall development, and risk management’.
So, brand purpose sits at the top of every disruptor, governing the company as a whole, not just customer experience, storytelling and advertising.
The purposeful advertisers
So, who is doing this well?
Who is, as a Fjord report describes it, combining ‘respect, trust, value and design as well as empathy and storytelling’?
Well, the easy ones to pick out are the disruptors. Airbnb is the one that comes to my mind.
Everything the peer-to-peer platform does is rooted in a belief in community, in the joy of experiencing a place through its people.
The brand is a lot more than a property listings company and this makes advertising much easier.
Existing customers are so bought into the idea of meeting a local, and of using the Airbnb platform to help facilitate travel, that an advert that may seem inauthentic had it come from a hotelier, suddenly takes on deeper meaning.
Advertising can in rare circumstances be powerful enough to create a brand, but mostly it should reflect the brand purpose already in place.
That same Fjord report summarises this beautifully:
‘Building or rebuilding this trust to the point where consumers believe organizations have their best interests at heart will require a long-term, concerted effort where marketing and PR are matched by real actions and a realignment of corporate priorities.’
Unilever is one of the big corporates that has been walking the walk for some time.
The CPG giant made waves recently stating it had ‘gone too narrow’, by spending too much on hyper-targeted advertising through Facebook.
And indeed, Unilever has been concentrating on its various brand missions and overriding corporate purpose for a number of years.
Domestos is helping millions of people access toilets, Persil has helped provide education for millions of children and Dove’s campaigns against the objectification of women are iconic.
Unilever as a whole has its Sustainable Living Plan, which has been running for more than five years and focuses on sustainability to deliver faster growth and to lower costs, as well as reducing risk in the supply chain and increasing trust from consumers.
What does this mean for agencies?
Paraphrasing Tobaccowala, there will be less arbitrage and less arrogance.
Agencies should not be just selling media, they should be sharing in client success by concentrating on meaningful advertising and marketing in the most appropriate medium (and tailored to that medium).
The shape of things to come can perhaps be seen in the new Omnicom deal with McDonald’s. The group’s agencies will now be in charge of both creative and media, with all payment (above variable costs) being performance related.
This means the group’s various specialists in different media will make it their duty to sell burgers, following the brand’s mission, with any success having to be meticulously tracked.
That’s just what you’d want a McDonald’s marketer to do, so why not their agency?