smith+co on
customer experience
Shaun Smith
  • By Shaun Smith
  • Dec 15 2012

Customer Experience - On purpose

Customer experience, by definition, reflects the impression consumers form as they interact with brands. Trends become apparent by the innovations that organisations introduce in an attempt to differentiate, but also in the ways in which consumers respond.

The use of mobile apps like O2’s ‘Priority Moments’ to curate experiences for customers; the convergence between on and off-line experiences as demonstrated in the new Burberry flagship store in London where iPads and couches have replaced the sales till and counter; and the use of a distinctive ‘branded’ tone of voice as practised by the likes of MailChimp, Lush and innocent are all examples of how brands seek to push the boundaries of customer experience forward.

But sometimes trends only become apparent because of the way in which consumers respond to events. One of the big news stories of 2012 was Hurricane Sandy. This ‘storm of the century’ caused 85 deaths and left 8 million people on the eastern seaboard of the USA without power for several days.

It was interesting to see how brands responded to this event. Some, like fashion retailers The Gap, Urban Outfitters and American Apparel, saw this as a sales opportunity and quickly launched campaigns like this one:

American Apparel targeted customers in the nine stricken states who were ‘bored’ at home and invited them to visit American Apparel for a 20% off deal.

Not unsurprisingly, consumers reacted with anger at this commercialisation of, what was, a terrible event for many people, and twitter and other social media channels were buzzing with outraged customers voicing their opinions about the apparent lack of sensitivity.

However, some other organisations chose to respond differently. For example, two of the P&G brands, Duracell and Tide, found ways to help consumers in their hours of need and in so doing, created good will for the brand.

Duracell sent mobile charging stations to Lower Manhattan so that people could charge their flat mobile phones and connect with loved ones. Tide loaded a truck with 32 washer/dryers and sent it out on the streets so that people could wash their clothes. Now, a cynic might argue that this was just another form of marketing. That might be true in terms of the long-term effect but I don’t believe that was their objective. The evidence suggests that the first response of these brands was to ask what they could do to help, rather than what they could do to sell. As a result, consumers experienced these brands in totally different ways.

So what explains the difference in the way these brands approached the crisis? I believe that we are seeing a trend that has been around for a while but really gained momentum and relevance in 2012.

A different breed of organisation is emerging in this world. They succeed because they have the courage, confidence or just sheer chutzpah to pursue a purpose that is beyond profit. They see their customers and employees as members of a like-minded community. They recognise that brands can only succeed longer-term if they create value for the community at large, not just the shareholders. They have a brand purpose and are committed to making it a reality. The emergence of this trend can also be seen in the ways that consumers responded to another big story.

2012 was also characterised by the continuing media and consumer criticism of financial services and banks in particular. Consumers are angry at the self-serving behaviour of banks and bankers and increasingly turning to those brands that seem to value the customer more than their own bottom-line. Organisations like First Direct, Umpqua and Metro Bank will benefit as a result. That is not to say these brands aren’t commercially minded – they are, but they manage to make us feel that we come first.

Of course the Hurricane Sandy and bank examples are related – they both stem from brands behaving in a way that is ‘on purpose’ or not.

An annual Edelman study found that consumers are increasingly inclined to favour those brands that have a social conscience and are prepared to give something back to the world. (66 per cent) will recommend or buy from a brand that supports good causes. A perfect example of this is the 25% boost in sales for Costa Coffee that parent Whitbread just announced as a result of consumers ‘voting with their feet’ after it was revealed that Starbucks has paid just £8.6 million in UK corporate tax for its 750 stores since 1998.

Mitch Markson, Chief Creative Officer of Edelman said this in their report,

“Purpose is now the ‘fifth P’ of marketing. It’s a vital addition to the age-old marketing mix of product, price, place, and promotion”.

Now, many would argue that Purpose is the 6th ‘P’ of the mix because People are the 5th ‘P’ but this does not negate his conclusion. In the research for our latest book ‘Bold-how to be brave in business and win’, Andy Milligan and I identified that those brands that are transforming their markets through the customer experience share a common approach to business; they have a purpose beyond merely making profit. As Angela Ahrendts, CEO of Burberry says; “There is always this balance between hard and soft strategies, investment and intuition, but if you have a greater purpose, it becomes relatively easy to make those calls”.

Seafarers have known through the ages that the way to navigate through dangerous waters is to have a clear course to steer-one that leads to the ultimate destination whilst avoiding immediate hazards. Unless organisations have this same clarity of purpose they will be find themselves continually tossed about in the continuing turbulence ahead. Customer experience innovations that are disconnected from the brand purpose become mere marketing gimmicks. Nor can we navigate our business solely through our Profit and Loss account, NPS or any other metric because they are essentially a record of where we have been-we also need a compass to know where we are headed too. That compass is our purpose and 2012 is the year that it started to become evident which brands have one and which do not.