Why a Great Brand Just isn’t Enough: Exploring the Relationship Between Brand and Customer Experience

By / January 13, 2015

For most of our clients, brand is an extremely important part of their business; it encapsulates a core identity and communicates the essence of what a company stands for. A “good brand” is genuine and authentic; it should act as a shorthand message to customers, signaling an organization’s underlying mission and values. Brands express this distilled identity through tone and aesthetic. Key elements might include a name or term, visual design or symbol, corporate voice, or any other combination of elements that identify and differentiate a product or service. But brand alone may be limited in its ability to create real, customer value.

In the following post, I explore the difference between branding and customer experience, highlighting key examples from a company recognized by people the world over.

 Brands Give Customers A Reason to Choose

A “good brand” can have immense impact, and many successful companies invest a great amount of time and resources into the cultivation and protection of their brand(s). “Good brands” tell clear, meaningful stories; they engage us on an emotional level and can even influence the way we perceive a company. Ultimately, the aim of a good brand is to influence consumer choice, drive loyalty, and garner sales! It’s therefore no coincidence that some of the world’s most valuable brands belong to some of the world’s most universally recognized and successful organizations!


For example, with annual sales at $27.04 billion in 2014, Nike is one of the world’s most recognized and successful brands. Their mission: “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” (*Of course, as famously put by the company’s co-founder and legendary University of Oregon track and field coach, Bill Bowerman, “If you have a body, you are an athlete.”)

Notably, much of Nike’s brand success can be attributed to the product itself. Nike prides itself as a design and innovation-first organization remaining true to their founding mission of delivering continuous performance innovation. Moreover, the brand is prolific; Nike operates across six major global geographies and addresses nearly every major sport. Indeed, there are very few sports where the Nike brand does not currently have a strong presence.

Notwithstanding, the Nike brand promise resonates with customers the world over. As an organization, Nike invests considerable amounts of money in brand endorsements from the world’s most iconic athletes. These “sports celebrities” feature prominently across all of Nike’s campaigns – in print ads, online, in the store environment, on the playing field, and more. In fact, the world’s most elite performance athletes even make an appearance in the popular Nike+ Runing App. (Sports celebrities the likes of Cara Goucher and Paula Radcliffe routinely sing my praise through the app’s post-run congratulatory messages!)

Nike’s brand is expressed across a multitude of channels using many design elements, but the positioning of the athlete as a modern-day hero might be considered to be a central ingredient of the brand image. Not only does the brand attach itself to veritable “heroes” of sport, but they consciously and carefully art direct every athlete’s image. Dynamically posed human bodies, expressions of great intensity and focus convey the ideals of athleticism, courage, honor and performance. Even the Nike store mannequins carry a dynamic air, capturing freeze-frame athletic poses. Emblazoned with the brand’s unmistakable goddess-inspired logo and namesake, the message is clear, emotionally-charged, and embraced by athletes (and would-be athletes) the world over.


Good Brands Highlight an Organization’s Core Values, but Leave Room to Adapt and Evolve

Building an effective brand demands a deep understanding for the needs and wants of target customers, and finding alignment with an organization’s underlying values. Brand masters must go out into the world to generate this insight, and then (back in the design studio) expertly craft an identity that resonates, motivates, and connects with people. Orchestrating the sum of a product’s attributes to deliver a clear, but meaningful message is no small feat. The gestalt of name, package, price, story, promotion, and reputation can form powerful customer perceptions. Notably, good branding is a constant, evolutionary process; the best brands adapt to maintain cultural relevance over time.


An excellent example might be the way in which the Nike brand has retained its founding focus on delivering performance innovation and inspiration to athletes. While the vision is immutable, the way in which the brand expresses its mission has certainly evolved over time.

Nike’s ever-famous “Just Do It” slogan first made its debut in a 1988 television commercial featuring the then 80-year-old running icon Walt Stack running across the Golden Gate Bridge. Evoking sentiments of grit and determination, the phrase was intended to target athletes of all ages and abilities and transform Nike into more than a fitness gear manufacturer, but a personal statement too.

Since then, the trademarked motto has persisted across many different media and channels. The font and appearance have been updated and stylized in many different ways and applied across countless sports, advertisements and products.

It is now wearable, emblazoned on a diversity of apparel and accessories. It appears in print ads, billboards, online, and more. In the tagline’s 25-plus year history, it has been associated with endorsing athletes the likes of Ronaldinho de Assis Moreira, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Roger Federer, and more.

Not all of Nike’s campaigns have carried the same momentum, yet, in their own time and context were just as successful and resonant. The “Bo Knows” campaign of the late 80’s, Charles Barkley’s “not a role model”, and the 1995 “If you let me play” campaign for female participation in sport were all rooted in the popular culture and topics of the day.


 Credible Brands Follow Through on Promises Made: “Do as You Say, and Say as You Do”

If only effective brand strategy was so simple; to find a “voice” and then communicate it! While the brand proper is very important, most marketers today would add a big caveat to the value of branding alone as it has limited ability to actually create real customer value. Successful organizations need to think more holistically and go beyond branding; they need to simultaneously embody a brand and deliver its promise in all they say and do. Brand does not create value, it’s just a way of showing it. Brand creates awareness, incites desire, makes a statement, sets expectations. It can move a customer further through their purchase path, but the ultimate customer experience is where value truly begins. Successful companies design full customer experiences that translate their brand’s qualities into tangible interactions they share with their customers. In fact, for many the relationship is reciprocal; great customer experiences inform customer perceptions, thereby building stronger brands. Of course, wise marketers understand that brand credibility is won by not only making a meaningful promise to your customer, but in delivering against it too.

At Bridgeable, we believe that great brands are forged through great customer experiences, and that by extension, great customer experiences connect people to brands. So, what exactly is a customer experience and how might companies design the best? We define customer experience as “the sum of all experiences a customer has with a supplier of goods and/or services, over the duration of their relationship with that supplier.”

Customer Experiences Deepen Customer Relationships by Looking Beyond the Sales Transaction

Where brands tell stories and inform our impressions, a customer experience extends over a much longer duration. It can be traced across a customer’s journey (beyond the act of selling or marketing) to include stages of discovery and attraction, interaction, purchase, product/service use, cultivation, and advocacy. Strong brands establish relationships with their customers that start before and last long after the purchase transaction. At every customer touchpoint, they deliver meaningful experiences aligned to the core brand values.


As an example, not only is Nike renowned as a fitness apparel and equipment manufacturer, but they provide a full ecosystem of services and tools to support customers in their athletic pursuits as well. The Nike Running App is just one example of how Nike looks across the full spectrum of the customer experience to create meaningful touchpoints that extend beyond the purchase transaction. The app is a free web and mobile platform that allows runners to track their runs, create custom training programs, engage with friends, track shoe mileage, listen to music, and receive motivational messages from celebrity athletes. It becomes a tool that integrates Nike and the customer’s actual fitness ritual, beyond the product purchase. In doing so, Nike goes beyond “equipment and apparel manufacturing”, to become a motivational coaching companion who can help athletes reach their goals. In this way, the brand delivers against its promise to bring innovation and inspiration to athletes, embedding itself in their day to day activities.


Experiences are Promises Made Tangible

Great customer experiences are also tangible. When designing great customer experiences, designers look across the stages of this customer journey and consider the events, environments, artifacts, interactions, and communications that transpire, optimizing each unique touchpoint to meet the needs of the customer (and other important stakeholders). In practice, the delivery of touchpoints necessarily involves many stakeholders – sometimes a touchpoint may even be the interaction that occurs between frontline employees and a customer. In fact, to be successful, the brand story must seamlessly permeate employees, processes and the organization.


Case in Point: Nike’s retail locations boast far more than the latest product innovations from Nike. Many include additional features such as in-store workout studios, group and personal training services, and weekly programming and events to inspire and enable customers.

Nike has even set up popup stores to support new product launches. For example, when Nike launched their new line of Rival sports bras, they launched an online social media campaign inviting women to register for live bra fittings at a temporary retail location. Onsite, trained staff measured participants and helped them to select the bra model and size suitable for their bodies and sport impact. Participants were then invited to test out their bras in a live Nike Training Club fitness class led by tough-yet-charismatic instructors – all with no obligation to purchase. An online “bra selector” tool was simultaneously launched to support the product’s full retail launch in stores and online.


Customer Experiences Consider Many Touchpoints Across the Customer’s Journey

Of course, often the greatest challenge lies not necessarily in crafting the core brand strategy, but in seamlessly translating that promise and intent across this complex system of interconnected touchpoints (products, services, media, and more.) Drawing from the brand’s immutable core, “designers” must ensure that each touchpoint supports the core brand promise to create a consistent customer experience.

At Bridgeable, we often create brand frameworks that can help our clients to translate their brand’s immutable core across a variety of tactics. Where a service blueprint might describe how discreet touchpoints support the broader customer journey, a brand experience guide details qualities and features for each of those tactics. Brand experience guides help our customers to translate the often abstract, immutable brand essence into media-specific details and attributes.

The example framework below highlights how Nike translates its core brand across a variety of products, services, and communications, thereby setting the stage for seamless and consistent customer experiences.

Framework

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Nike’s core mission, “delivering innovation and inspiration to athletes the world over,” manifests itself in many different but tangible ways, depending on the context and medium. For example, the Nike Running App is innovative because it allows runners to connect into Nike’s broader online training community and to gauge their performance across all sports and activities using the universal “Nike fuel” metric. It delivers performance by allowing users to create custom training programs for upcoming races and events, tailored to individual ability. The app is inspiring too – it allows users to select their own “power songs” (to provide mental fortitude in the final legs of a tough run) and includes motivational “attaboy” messages from elite athletes. Lastly, the tool is free! Any athlete at any level – from beginners to seasoned pros – can download and use the app, connect to the Nike Running community and train for success. Similarly, Nike products also deliver against this core brand promise. The innovative Nike Flyknit technology is a revolutionary new approach to athletic shoes that required a complete reimagining of the materials and manufacturing process. The seamless single layer upper provides support precisely where it’s needed at a fraction of the weight of traditionally-built shoes, delivering on Nike’s promise of performance. At the same time, the Flyknit is inspiring grace to its unique appearance and captivating origin story. (The Flyknit emerged from what at first seemed like an almost ridiculous and outlandish design concept; an actual sock sewn to a sole. This story is reinforced across the product’s packaging and promotional channels.) Lastly, Fkyknit is applied across a diversity of shoe types for athletes of all disciplines and levels who benefit from its lightweight strength and flexibility.

The best brands deliver against their promises, and in return, they become stronger, more resilient, and credible in the eyes of their customers. By translating a brand’s core values and promise across touchpoints, an organization can deliver an integrated, 360-degree experience that consistently delivers against the brand’s promise. Consistency and follow-through on promises made is, after all, what builds great relationships and sound credibility.


 

Want to learn more about creating great brands and delivering excellence through customer experience?

Take a peek at some of these recommended reads from the Bridgeable library:

DOING: Hands-On Tools, Methods, and Frameworks

 REFLECTING: Perspectives, Insights and Case Studies

  • Design Thinking: Integrating Innovation, Customer Experience, and Brand Value by Thomas Lockwood (2009)
  • Lovemarks: The Future Beyond Brands, by Kevin Roberts (2005)
  • What Customers Want: Using Outcome-Driven Innovation to Create Breakthrough Products and Services, by Anthony W. Ulwick (2005)
  • Beyond the Brand: Why Engaging the Right Customers is Essential to Winning Business, by John Windsor (2004)