When a cocktail onion is a brand experience…

It all started with some cocktail onions. Bypassing my usual three olive request with a dry martini, something that Friday evening inspired me to ask for cocktail onions instead. The cheery young waitress smiled, closed her order pad and sped away, only to re-appear a few moments later with a look of despair as her only companion.

It all started with some cocktail onions. Bypassing my usual three olive request with a dry martini, something that Friday evening inspired me to ask for cocktail onions instead. The cheery young waitress smiled, closed her order pad and sped away, only to re-appear a few moments later with a look of despair as her only companion.

She was sorry to report that the bartender was out of cocktail onions. She looked sincerely distressed. After teasing her gently that perhaps the International Tribunal of Bartending Arts and the Canadian Cocktail Onion Marketing Board would have to be notified immediately, we agreed that olives would be just fine.

A few minutes later, the waitress appeared again with a smiling young man carrying a tray with my shimmering Bombay Sapphire martini and something beside it covered by a white linen napkin. The bartender explained that he wanted to deliver the cocktail personally and explain that he had indeed found a couple of the missing cocktail condiments previously requested. With a grand flourish, he whipped the linen away to reveal two giant Vidalia onions, the size of softballs, festooned with a dozen of those little neon-coloured paper drink umbrellas.

Our table, plus the entire section of guests surrounding us, exploded with laughter and then applause in appreciation of the imagination shown by the young restaurateurs, or Business Associates, as they are known in this particular chain. It was a wonderful joke, done in the right place at the right time in the right way.

And what was it really? It was a positive Brand Experience. A brand experience that helps differentiate this particular restaurant from hundreds in the crowded, dog-eat-dog category. The lesson? That the ultimate goal of today’s marketers is to create brand apostles that spread the good customer experience tidings by word-of-mouth…or better yet, digitally, by word-of-mouse.

What made it such a positive brand experience was that this particular restaurant kept its promise. They promote themselves as a fun place (‘Sorry We’re Open’ reads their sign) and they recruit, train and motivate crews of outgoing and energetic young people who believe that they are in the entertainment business.

I am a firm believer that brand image is a promise made to prospects (done fairly easily through advertising, signage, public relations, etc.), but brand equity (where the real value is) is built when those promises are kept over time through many experiences.

More than 40 years ago, ad guru Leo Burnett said that ‘if you can’t turn yourselves into a consumer, then you shouldn’t be in the advertising business at all.’ Projected into the 21st century, Mr. Burnett would no doubt be referring to branding and not advertising in his proclamation.

But there is a caveat, and it has to do with how one approaches the concept of brands. Successful agencies and clients of the future cannot believe that branding means just having a common look and slogan. Any corporate logo cop worth his salt can make sure that those table stakes in the branding game are in order.

Good brand architects understand that it is vital to build up from the consistent look of the brand into the consistent feel of the brand. Knowing where the brand resides in the hearts and minds of the consumer and understanding what kind of positive relationship the customer wants is more important than making sure that the brand identifier always appears in mint green.

And how do you get this valuable customer insight? If you answered that you would go out and talk to customers or commission a study, I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. Talking to is the worst thing that marketers can do in terms of brand experience. However: listening to; understanding; anticipating needs and wants; making better; making easier; making happier; and creating meaning – these are all much more important in the future of branding and marketing.

In Experiential Marketing, Columbia Business School professor Bernd Schmitt points out that brand managers who believe that consumers are rational buyers seeking product features and benefits while comparison shopping are only seeing part of the picture.

‘Today, customers take functional features and benefits, product quality, and a positive brand image as a given,’ he writes. ‘What they want is products, communications and marketing campaigns that dazzle their senses, touch their hearts and stimulate their minds. They want products, communications and campaigns that they can relate to and that they can incorporate into their lifestyles.’

On the financial or shareholder value front, Stan Rapp, CEO of New York-based McCann Relationship Marketing Worldwide, notes that ‘brand experience directly affects the relationship between company and customer, and contributes to the long-term value of the business.’ In other words, without positive, loyal customer relationships, brand equity slips, and so does the bottom line.

Rapp has even worked out an equation related to the concept:

Brand experience =

(product quality + contact quality)

x time

This captures the idea that brand experience equates customer satisfaction with how products perform, plus a pleasing customer-company interaction, multiplied by various brand contacts in multiple contexts over time.

Given the sheer number of brand contacts – including sales staff interaction, advertising, Web sites, call centres, public relations, service personnel and brand users – how can companies manage them all? It begins with my new five Ps of marketing: People, Passion, Pride, Pleasing and Profit.

People

Don Schultz of the Medill School of Journalism’s Integrated Marketing Communications program at Northwestern University once predicted that there will be far less marketing in the future and much more customering. Agreed. I think that only by gathering, understanding and then leveraging legitimate customer insight can marketers be effective in creating consistent, relevant and rewarding brand experiences.

Brand-builders must treat their customers with sincere respect and care when constructing relationships. As David Ogilvy once wrote: ‘The customer is not an idiot, the customer is your wife.’

I believe that advertising agencies and their clients have a big responsibility in recruiting, stimulating and educating their own people to be more competent communicators and brand stewards. Ad agencies, in particular, should be aware of the growing encroachment of organizations such as the Boston Consulting Group into the branding arena.

I have been told for the past 25 years that this is a ‘people’ business. While agencies have historically been best prepared to represent the customer in the past, they would be well advised to heed the aforementioned advice from Leo Burnett.

Passion

The organization (and its agency) must be passionate about keeping, nay, living the brand promises made. The entire company, from executives to front-line employees, must be involved in making the customer’s brand experience a positive one – one that is differentiated from the competition.

That takes training, cultural alignment, empowerment, relevant rewards, effective systems, teamwork and great internal communications. If it is not a sincere, inside-out, holistic business approach, it will fail. The customer will sense the dishonesty and a uknowwho-sucks.com Web site is launched in a nanosecond. The differentiated brand experience is going to become the new business model for successful organizations.

In the book 4-D Branding, by Thomas Gad, you can find an excellent model for creating corporate brand DNA which will drive every aspect of a business from product innovation to recruitment in the future.

Pride

Brand builders must strive to create brand communities or tribes that people are proud to belong to, communities like those associated with Harley-Davidson, Saturn and Macintosh. Consumer lifestyle affinity (both aspirational and real) should be reinforced through positive brand experiences.

Members of organizations such as Southwest Airlines are given ample reasons and recognition to be proud of the work they do through great internal communications, empowerment, rewards and their own satisfying brand experiences. The pride that employees have in their own organizations should be an obvious and positive brand contact for all prospects.

Pleasing

Remember trying to purchase something online three years ago? (Or even three weeks ago?) Was it a pleasant experience? Probably not. Even doing some simple but valuable information seeking has not been a rewarding event. One of the key strategic fronts that the brand experience campaign will be fought and won on is the digital interface beachhead. Web sites that are people-friendly, easy to navigate, and actually keep the corporate brand promises are a great way to build stronger customer relationships.

My agency, Quarry Integrated Communications, has opened two Brand Experience Labs, one in Waterloo, Ont. and the other in Dallas, to help clients such as FedEx, Cendant and BASF Canada enhance their leadership roles by providing positive online branded customer experiences.

A pleasing experience in any customer contact situation allows the brand to build a ‘trust account.’ Bring a smile to a customer’s face and you have created a deposit. Since not every customer experience or interaction will meet expectations (even Disney screws up every once in a while) there may be withdrawals occasionally from the equity of the trust fund as well. Strong brands keep a more than satisfactory balance on deposit. Weak brands don’t live up to their promises and are soon bankrupt.

Profit

We are in a customer-driven economy that is rife with customer loyalty promiscuity. According to a 2001 survey done by the U.K.’s Forum Corporation, 80% of those who switch suppliers actually expressed satisfaction with their previous supplier. And the cost of attracting a new customer or luring back a disgruntled one is four times that of keeping a customer in the fold.

In a February 2001 article, Forum SVP Shaun Smith writes: ‘Brand advocacy (the willingness of customers to refer friends, relatives and colleagues to a favourite supplier) translates into retention, increased share of spend, and higher levels of acquisition.’ Smith also points out that these advocates are created through brand experiences that are consistent, intentional, differentiated and valuable.

These days, pressure on the bottom line means less focus on top-line figures like gross sales. Short term sales are easier to score if margin is given away, but that will no longer be tolerated by the corporate financial pooh-bahs. Instead, brand managers will be measured by how much money they keep inside their organizations.

Companies need improved ROI – but perhaps the acronym should now stand for Return On Involvement: Customer involvement. Loyal advocates proud to be telling stories about ‘their’ brand as a result of positive customer experiences.

You see? It all comes back to those cocktail onions…

Alan Quarry is president of Quarry Integrated Communications, a Waterloo, Ont.-based company that began as a one-person, traditional ad agency in 1973 and has evolved into a state-of-the-art communications solutions provider with offices in Toronto and Dallas. He can be reached at: aquarry@quarry.com.