Online sales are reaching all-time highs as buyers become more comfortable with digital transactions — in 2021, for example, consumers spent a collective $14 billion online across Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
For businesses, the shift to online-first purchasing offers substantive potential, but also underpins prospective problems: As the number of digital product offerings ramps up, competition for customer conversions is also on the rise.
The result? A battlefield for brand experience. If companies can create a lasting positive impression among potential customers, they can drive sales and set the stage for long-term loyalty. But what exactly is brand experience? What does effective design require and what does it look like in practice? Most importantly, how do brands create experience strategies that deliver reliable results over time?
What is brand experience?
Brand experience is the lasting impression customers have of your brand. It includes thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and reactions to everything from direct marketing efforts to large-scale ad campaigns and specific product launches.
Brand experience describes the tangible and emotional experience consumers have while interacting with your brand. Think of it as a holistic approach that combines elements of user experience, customer experience, and brand identity all in one.
Brand experience encompasses all the feelings consumers have before, during, and after interacting with your brand. Take Nestlé Toll House for example. When most people think of them, they think of cookies. You may even remember baking cookies using Toll House chocolate chips, the smell as they baked, and finally, savoring every last bite. You may even associate the brand with moments of bonding with family as you baked cookies together.
In this case, the Toll House brand experience has moved beyond just the consumption of chocolate chips. It’s an emotional connection built over time with consumers and how their products integrate into the lives of the people who buy them.
While brand experience is similar to user experience, it encompasses a broader perception of your brand at large. Where user experience speaks to the takeaways — positive or negative — of a user when they interact with your website or social media profiles, brand experience refers to the impression of your brand as a whole. Not surprisingly, positive user experiences inform better brand experiences (and vice versa) but the two are distinct concepts.
It’s also important to understand that brand experience is subjective. While it’s possible to create experiences that produce reactions along a generalized spectrum, individual users will have different reactions to your efforts. In practice, this means that no matter how carefully you curate brand experience efforts, there will always be customers who come away with a negative reaction. As a result, the goal isn’t to create a universal experience but rather to create one that resonates positively with the largest number of target customers.
Breaking Down Brand Experience Design
Just 39% of business decision-makers say their brand effectively resonates with prospective buyers. This is a problem: If customers don’t connect your brand with positive thoughts, feelings, and reactions, they’re less likely to remember your products and services when it comes time to make a purchase.
Worth noting? Neutrality isn’t enough. While negative impressions of your brand can drive customers away from your site, neutral impressions are just as problematic — even if consumers see your brand listed in search engine results or advertised online, the absence of a positive brand impression means they won’t seek you out over companies that offer better connective messaging.
So what does effective brand experience design look like? Four components are critical:
Perception forms a key part of the experience. This includes audio, visual, and tactical interactions that allow customers to connect a specific sense to advertising campaigns. In much the same way that particular smells can bring back memories of childhood experiences, brands that successfully merge senses with marketing can create connections that drive sales.
It’s also more likely that customers will walk away with a positive brand experience if they’re able to participate in some way rather than simply watch. This might include the ability to submit suggestions online or interact in real-time online question forums, or it could feature the use of physical installations that allow consumers to touch your product or provide direct feedback.
Generic marketing campaigns can produce steady returns, but personalization can help encourage connection across different customer segments. By leveraging both user-provided data (with their consent) along with social media interactions and other engagement data, it’s possible to create more personalized efforts that help create connections between consumer needs and current product offerings.
Brand experience can’t be all things to all people. Attempts to capture every consumer in every circumstance actually undermine experience-driven efforts — as a result, it’s worth selecting specific brand metrics such as positive social mentions or repeat purchases to prioritize.
Creating a Brand Experience Strategy
So how do you build an effective brand experience strategy?
1. Assess whether or not you’re meeting customer expectations.
First up is identifying areas where your current experience isn’t meeting customer expectations. Social media interactions and customer service calls can help pinpoint potential problems — if consistent concerns around brand interaction or reaction arise, this can help frame the foundation of brand experience strategy.
2. Identify areas for improvement.
Next is targeting an area for improvement. While there may be more than one aspect of brand experience that could use a refresh or redesign, attempting to do everything at once can spread strategy efforts too thin and deliver less-than-ideal results. For example, you might choose to increase positive social mentions across specific channels such as Facebook or Instagram. While the eventual goal could be a larger social impact from initial contact to eventual conversion, easily-accessible social platforms provide an ideal starting point.
3. Measure your results.
Effective measurement follows to ensure efforts are bearing fruit. In the case of our social media example above, this means tracking user views, reactions, and responses to social media posts along with the sentiment — positive, negative, or neutral — that goes along with them. This is also the time to explore and innovate by testing multiple strategies to see which one sticks. From video campaigns to personalized storytelling to marketing efforts all designed to elicit specific emotions, it’s worth finding that resonates with your customer base and then fine-tuning your efforts to deliver ideal outcomes.
Exploring Brand Experience Examples
- Red Bull
- Cadbury India
- Lean Cuisine
It’s one thing to talk about brand experience building, but it’s another to see it in action. Here’s a look at five brand experiences efforts that offer effective in-practice examples.
One of the reasons Apple has such a devoted customer base is because of the brand experience they’ve created. From ads to Apple stores to the packaging of their products — all touch points work together to create a cohesive brand experience that highlights innovation, style, and functionality.
Their products are cool, sleek, and user-friendly, all attributes highly coveted by Apple’s fans. Even their product announcements have become anticipated events. Apple is a pro at conquering the four "Ps" of brand experience (perception, participation, personalization, and prioritization) and incorporating them in all messaging. This helps Apple stay top of mind for consumers whether they’re in the market to buy or not. It’s not a smart phone, it’s an iPhone. It’s not a laptop, it’s a MacBook.
2. Red Bull
In 2012, the company went all-in on its tagline “Red Bull gives you wings by sending skydiver Alex Baumgartner 24 miles above the Earth’s surface to pull off the highest skydive ever recorded and become the first person to break the sound barrier during freefall.
While his record was broken two years later by an executive from Google, it doesn’t change the fact that Red Bull did something no one had ever done before and created a unique brand experience that aligned with its core marketing message.
3. Cadbury India
Cadbury India opted for consumer suggestions in creating their new chocolate bar flavor. Customers were encouraged to visit the company’s dedicated chocolate bar platform that let them select ingredients and create a recipe. Cadbury then tried all suggested recipes and selected the best of those submitted.
By prioritizing interaction over simple reaction, Cadbury facilitated consumer connection and encouraged customers to view chocolate bar making as a collaborative effort rather than a corporate endeavor, in turn creating a community-based brand experience.
Similarly to Cadbury, Nike found that giving customers more control over their products was a win. Nike By You allows customers to customize their favorite Nike kicks online using various color and style combinations.
Their flagship store in NYC’s SoHo boasts a sneaker bar where customers can customize their shoes in person with dip-dyeing, patches, and accessories. This emphasis on customization and personalization allows Nike to fully integrate into their customers' lives, creating a brand experience that lasts long after they’ve made a purchase.
5. Lean Cuisine
While healthy eating has taken off in recent years, messaging around this effort is often the opposite. With a focus on weight loss instead of overall health, many brands find themselves reinforcing harmful stereotypes that equate weight loss with personal worth.
Lean Cuisine’s #WeighThis campaign looked to change the narrative by placing “scales” around New York’s Grand Central Station that encouraged women to “weigh in”.
The catch? These scales were actually boards that let women write down how they would prefer to be measured — such as by their own persistence, accomplishments or efforts.
Even better? Lean Cuisine marketers were smart enough to stay out of the way. There were no samples on offer, no surveys to fill out; women simply saw the scales and interacted with them, in turn boosting Lean Cuisine’s overall brand experience.
Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty took a similar approach to Lean Cuisine but opted for the use of viral video that highlighted beauty of all types — beauty that goes beyond photoshoots and photoshop. The campaign earned praise for both its authenticity and efforts to help boost self-esteem among young girls.
By choosing emotional experience over a simple sales effort, Dove was able to better connect with its target customer base and boost overall customer loyalty.
Zillow’s “To Move is to Grow” campaign tapped into 2021’s pandemic house hunting frenzy. As people started remote work, folks realized that they didn’t need to live in crowded cities, and browsing the home search site quickly became a common pastime, which Saturday Night Live hilariously highlighted in one of its skits that year.
Tugging at our heartstrings, Zillow tackled the emotional rollercoaster of moving. Using an aesthetic reminiscent of Where the Wild Things Are, the first commercial showcases a child unsure about what her moving adventure will bring. The second one hones in on a seller’s perspective. Susan, the main character, is faced with a host of doppelgangers that try to influence her decision.
With many across the globe feeling like their lives were in flux, Zillow was able to create a brand experience that showed empathy with their customers as they navigated their new normal during a pandemic. It also positioned the brand as a reliable guide to assist with their transition, whether buying or selling.
Canadian commercial airline WestJet has been running its “Christmas Miracle” campaign since 2013. Its 2021 version sees the company asking people what they miss the most during the holidays — not surprisingly, many mention absent family members. WestJet staff then provide plane tickets to help loved ones reconnect, and the end of the video features a tearful reunion in progress.
Overall, it’s a feel-good experience designed to bring out emotions already close to the surface for many customers and in turn, boost the overall brand experience.
Building a Better Brand Experience
The right brand experience makes all the difference when it comes to cultivating long-term customer relationships. By understanding where current efforts don’t deliver, prioritizing areas for improvement, and tracking engagement metrics over time, it’s possible to build a brand experience that boosts customer connection and encourages long-term loyalty.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in February 2016 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.