Culture club

Here goes the story of an 81-year-old VanCity customer: she met her soul mate in Hawaii during the war, but relocated to B.C. and never saw him again. Sixty-five years later, he pens a letter, asking her back for a visit. Intrigued, she asks her trusty credit union branch manager for a loan to cover the trip.

Here goes the story of an 81-year-old VanCity customer: she met her soul mate in Hawaii during the war, but relocated to B.C. and never saw him again. Sixty-five years later, he pens a letter, asking her back for a visit. Intrigued, she asks her trusty credit union branch manager for a loan to cover the trip.

He tries to stretch out the payments to make it happen. Problem is, his higher-ups balk. So he fights for approval and his loyal customer is finally reunited with her one true love.

The stuff of movies? Actually, it’s from the Vancouver-based financial firm’s ‘story book,’ which is meant to inspire staff and, ultimately, solidify its brand experience in the process. Surprising tactic for a financial company?

It shouldn’t be. After all, the phrase ‘brand experience’ has recently replaced ‘branding’ as the favourite word to come out of the mouths of agency folk and marketers alike. The trouble is that few know where to begin.

And that is trouble indeed. ‘There’s not a whole lot left to differentiate on,

because everyone’s selling a commodity,’ says Will Novosedlik, who just founded a Toronto-based consultancy called Chemistry with Susan McGibbon, a former colleague at Taxi, to assist companies in this quest.

Novosedlik recently returned from Prague where he helped Oskar, a cell phone company, revamp its stores to be more engaging, among other things. (See sidebar.) ‘One of the things that bugged the hell out of me [at agencies] is you’d take on an assignment for a client, and it would go out and make a big splash, and you’d realize there was really no internal mechanism to deliver on the brand.’

However, brand stewards are increasingly interested in wowing consumers through one-on-one interaction. Max Lenderman, president of Montreal-based guerrilla marketing firm Gearwerx, is also a founding member of the International Experiential Marketing Association (IXMA), HQ’d in San Francisco. Although the organization started up only a year ago, it now counts over 10,000 members, mostly marketers at the VP and EVP level, dedicated to taking their brands to the next level.

Experiential marketing, explains Lenderman, is an umbrella term for the tactics implemented to create a brand experience. A manifesto that Lenderman wrote for the IXMA states: ‘Consumers want … experiences that are personally relevant, memorable, sensory, emotional and meaningful…. Businesses will live or die … by the experience they offer customers at every touch point.’

And that’s just the beginning: Pundits believe that down the road the brand-customer relationship will be entirely flipped on its head. In a recent speech given at the IEG Event Marketing Conference in Chicago, futurist Andrew Zolli talked of the quickly approaching ‘culture economy’ being brought on by a ‘participation revolution’ instigated by consumers.

Adds Lenderman: ‘Brands have been controlled by brand managers and, in the past, God forbid you messed with top-down messaging. Now brand play comes from the bottom up, and it becomes culture.’

A certain computer company is already succeeding at ‘brand culture.’ Says Lenderman: ‘Apple positioned itself as being for the creative individual in all of us. Then it [began to give] tools to consumers to

co-create films, marketing, etc. Not only do they talk the talk, they walk the walk.’ He points to the example of an amateur

one-minute ad that surfaced on the Internet recently. ‘The guy did all his work on an iMac, while listening to an iPod, and made an Apple commercial for no reason at all. It becomes a cultural movement.’

But what’s equally brilliant is Apple’s response. Instead of hand slapping the creator, the firm brought him into its marketing department to consult. It all plays into Apple’s strategy to be more social and more responsive to consumer needs, says Lenderman.

Take ‘Geniuses,’ tech reps who can be found behind a sleek bar-like counter in Apple’s 100-plus shops, located mainly in the U.S. Lenderman calls them ‘the direct antithesis to being placed on hold by Bell, Samsung or HP.’ (Apparently the idea was born after senior execs at Apple witnessed how management at Ritz-Carlton hotels handled their customers.)

And there’s even more to Apple’s retail strategy. It has turned its stores into hangouts where kids can play games on plasma TVs and shoppers can relax in a theatre, watching educational videos on digital photography, movie making, or music production. Moreover, DJs will broadcast music from their iPods, and customers can sign up for courses, sometimes taught by celebs like Spike Lee and Moby. All this has enabled the brand to enjoy ‘one of those rare positions in the brand world where they are forever authentic.’

What about brands in the Great White North? Lenderman points to Nike Canada. Whereas Apple is the brand for the creative genius in everyone, Nike is for the athlete in all. And like Apple, Nike Canada delivers that message face-to-face. Consider the Battlegrounds tournament, which first launched two years ago. The Thornhill, Ont.-based company spent a year building a relationship with urban ballers in Toronto. In fact, these athletes helped create videos that were subsequently mailed to 32 players inviting them to the tourney. Nike’s subsequent billboard advertising starred the grassroots athletes.

Then there’s RunTO, which has seen the sportswear firm organize 10K races in Toronto and more recently, pop-up retail stores – created with help from Vancouver-based Inventa – enabling joggers to sample footwear on the spot. ‘The stuff they do in Canada is forward-thinking,’ says Lenderman. ‘They’re very much into ‘I don’t care what kind of athlete you are, but we’re your best friend.”

For Vancouver-based A&W, the goal is to be a best friend to Canada’s baby boomer generation. According to VP marketing Don Maunders, the strategy in the last few years has evolved to focus on this demo, which numbers nine million strong. ‘[In the late '50s/early '60s] A&W was big, and there wasn’t McDonald’s or Wendy’s,’ he explains. ‘So [Canadians] have personal memories of coming of age, while A&W was the backdrop.’

Thus, the fast food chain’s 60-second spot ‘Drive,’ created by Vancouver agency Rethink, which shows a married couple cruising into an A&W for some grub. To bring this scenario to life, the QSR instituted the Cruise in the Dub club. The groups regularly gather at the local A&W in their vintage ’60s wheels.

But it doesn’t end there. Since 1999, the QSR has made significant strides to bring its brand full circle by reintroducing The Burger Family, the Chubby Chicken line, and the Root Beer float; by establishing new freestanding stores in Ontario and Quebec (as opposed to only focusing on mall locations, as it has in the past); and by altering the design of its restaurants, including packaging.

Says Maunders: ‘Boomers will choose us because what we give them they can’t get anywhere else – great food, [recipes are identical to the drive-in days], burgers in foil bags, frosted mugs.’ Inside the stores, there are more nostalgia triggers like ‘memory posters’ that reference the old, drive-in days. Even tray liners play a part, sharing feel-good stories from customers. And the QSR is committed to delivering more service than your average fast food joint too; staffers will ‘walk the pot’ and refill coffee mugs.

‘What the brand means to the customer is the sum of those parts,’ says Maunders, who adds that this holistic outlook is paying off. ‘We’ve seen our same-store sales grow and consistently outpace the industry average, our market share has climbed continuously over the last five years, and there’s also been a growth in the number of boomers in our restaurants.’

Other Canadian firms recognize the necessity of creating a brand experience too, and are working hard to deliver one. Take VanCity. According to VP marketing Kari Grist, the credit union’s recent rebranding process has taken more than two years. It all started when research indicated that 96% of Lower Mainland Vancouverites recognized VanCity as a financial institution and 91% described it as a highly respected local business. Yet market share was only at 10%. Adds Grist: ‘At the same time internally, we would talk to employees about ‘the VanCity difference’ and get many takes on it.’

So the credit union underwent a brand audit, featuring 100 90-minute interviews with employees, prospects and members. That’s when things got interesting, says Grist. ‘We engaged a company in Vancouver called Storytelling + Envisioning, which helped us [figure out how to] create our own story, tell it and live it. That added nine months to the timeline.’

Storytelling + Envisioning conducted ‘Story Driver’ sessions, inviting customers and employees to swap stories. There was also an online forum, where VanCity’s 2,000 staffers could contribute anecdotes; 1,200 of them participated and thousands upon thousands of pages of research were accumulated.

The result of all that insight? Two story books that launched in November; a 47-pager geared at staff, and a 17-page version for members, both of which include a history of the company, details about its operating philosophy and real-life stories. ‘It was a way for us to define what we were about. It gives a sense of the culture of the place.’

VanCity also had Vancouver-based design firm Karacters refresh its corporate identity into something ‘bolder, more confident, more approachable.’ The credit union also worked to improve its retail space; it built porticos around the doors to make people feel more welcome, replaced the standard name tags with friendly versions that say ‘Hello’ and created a central communications hub. Bike racks and dog tying stations were added outside. The final piece was the advertising, from TBWAVancouver, which carries the tagline ‘Expect better.’

Roxanne Pearce, director of marketing at Direct Energy, is also a proponent of brand experience, which she too defines as achieving consistency across every touch point. Pearce says this is essential in her category, where the lifetime value of a customer can be made or lost in one phone call.

‘This is such a low-involvement brand, we need to work critically to take advantage of the few touch points we have. So we’ve done an awful lot of work building the brand from the inside rather than layering on from a communication point of view….

We have to demonstrate the tone and manner we aspire to in mass advertising and targeting communications.’

Direct Energy’s brand, as suggested in new TV advertising from Toronto-based Sharpe Blackmore EURO RSCG, revolves around the insight that Canadians take pride in their homes, and reminds them that beauty is more than skin deep – that it’s what’s beneath the walls and in the basement that truly counts.

That’s true for the brand as well, so Direct Energy has been working with its customer service reps, technicians, energy management consultants and call centres to get them onboard. Part of that has included extra diligence at the hiring stage, according to Pearce. ‘We recognized we had to consider the brand when we did the hiring, so we got HR onboard to figure out what type of person we wanted, what are the personality traits, what expectations do we set up? Also, how do we compensate people and bonus them based on their support for the brand instead of just financial?’

The company is still working on finding a solution to the latter, but in the meantime has added the personal objective of ‘customer and brand’ to every employee’s performance review – whether they hail from the finance, sales or regulatory department.’It forces us to think of all components of the company,’ Pearce says.

Direct Energy also stays in touch with its staffers on a regular basis, through an online newsletter called Spark and other communications vehicles.

The fact Direct Energy is giving branding experience a shot says quite a lot. The days when it was solely the domain of hip, forward-thinking brands like Apple and Nike are gone.

Says Pearce: ‘It’s like an iceberg – most marketers get excited about the 15% that’s above water. But you can do whatever you want in a TV spot, that’s easy. Delivering on the experience in interaction with the customer is critical.’

DOING IT

Creating a brand experience is damn hard.

Just ask Will Novosedlik, co-founder of Toronto-based brand consultancy Chemistry. He spent a year and a half developing one for Oskar, a cellphone company based in Prague.

It started with the birth of a brand experience department, which engaged in a thorough experience audit. Explains Novosedlik: ‘It was just as if you were auditing a packaging assignment – except you were comparing your experience to that of your competitors, outlining your strengths and weaknesses and opportunities to differentiate.

‘The key is how deep you go. The further you do, the richer the yield of data for determining emotional response.’

The first major project Oskar undertook was to redesign all of its stores. This aspect of the audit involved 23 steps. It included observing shoppers via stationary video recorders, and conducting intercept and in-depth one-on-one reflection interviews.

One of the insights gleaned through observation was the fact that the counter acted as a barrier between customer and sales rep. So with the help of London, U.K.-based Enterprise IG, Oskar instituted all-in-one pods which enabled people to get physically closer. Displays were also redesigned to eliminate crowds and allow more space for sales reps to become engaged with the consumer.

Then they had to create a methodology for measurement. ‘You can do this by creating targets for success,’ says Novosedlik. ‘For instance, if 80% of customers leave the store feeling respected, it’s worked. Or if respect means they’re greeted and listened to, you attach a quantification to that as well – how many sales reps do it, how many have been trained to, and how many customers are coming back because of it.’

Novosedlik and a colleague borrowed the fundamental components of their methodology from the book Building Great Customer Experiences by Colin Shaw and John Ivens, who hail from a company called Beyond Philosophy in the U.K. They customized it to meet Oskar’s needs and filled in any gaps as they went along. ‘The biggest challenge is knowing which behaviours will generate a given response.’