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Brand Experience vs. Customer Experience: How to Get the Balance Right

Improving your customer experience is essential — but it will only take you so far. Once you fix all the pain points, you must still focus on your overall brand experience.
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Brand Experience vs. Customer Experience: How to Get the Balance Right

Brand loyalty, which had already been decreasing pre-pandemic, nosedived along with the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A recent study by McKinsey noted that 30 to 40 percent of consumers have switched brands and retailers as the economy reopens, a shift propelled initially by younger consumers seeking quality, value, and purpose-driven alignment.

Convenience, of course, was another factor. When there’s a national toilet paper shortage, most people will jump ship to any available brand.

To attract and retain consumers, many brands have focused recently on improving customer experience. But it’s not enough to simply eliminate pain points: brands need to differentiate their experience and point of view, especially as consumers place increasing importance on social and environmental values.

So how can brands stand out as we slowly emerge from the pandemic? Material’s Collin Wood and Amy Rogoff Dunn share their insights about customer experience vs. brand experience and how to get the balance right.

Improving your customer experience is essential, but it will only take you so far. Once you fix all the pain points, you’ll lose mindshare unless you also focus on your overall brand experience.

“Seamless” and “frictionless” are buzzwords in the customer experience world these days. Are brands focusing on CX at the expense of brand experience?  

Amy: Ten years ago, we talked a lot about brand experience and how brand positioning shouldn’t just be something on paper but should live in everything you do. It feels like there’s been like a pendulum swing in the opposite direction and now’s there’s an obsession about customer experience at the expense of brand experience. Of course, the CX should be delightful and frictionless, but it should also say something unique about your brand. Otherwise, those are just generic terms.

Collin: I’ve noticed that brand fatigue is definitely a thing: they are as burned out by the pandemic as the rest of us. From the brand perspective, it’s really been mostly about survival — what companies were doing was just executional. It’s understandable that the brand experience had to take a back seat. But it feels like we’re in a stage now where brands should be taking a front seat again.

Is it ever okay for brands to provide a less-than-delightful experience?

Amy: Consumers are willing to forgive a less-than-seamless experience, and even turn it into a positive if it’s part of the overall brand experience. Ikea is a great example of this. There are elements of their brand experience that aren’t classically great: you have to assemble the furniture yourself and sometimes it’s a struggle, but it totally fits their brand. A consumer might think, “The store location is not convenient and it’s not easy to put this bookshelf together, but it’s worth the struggle because I’m getting cost savings and that’s smart.”

Another example is Trader Joe’s. From a customer experience standpoint, they don’t carry major brands and have a relatively limited assortment, but it’s an interesting assortment of high-quality products. And one area where they shine is the friendliness of the store. They know what the brand wants to be, and with that ethos, a brand can shape the customer experience around their mission and product instead of robotically instituting what they think customer experience is meant to look like.

Collin:  I think from a design standpoint there should be the idea of meaningful friction. Ikea can’t necessarily provide a seamless experience because it’s too expensive. They have to make smart, considered choices to give their customers the price benefit they want. Ikea needs to make trade-offs all the time, and that’s okay. Ikea would be our poster child of balancing customer experience and brand experience.

Have consumers become more demanding during the pandemic?

Collin: Consumers were becoming exponentially more demanding even before Covid, because of the “I want it now culture” that was well-ingrained because of Amazon. The pandemic has been an accelerant and consumers’ expectations have really gone through the roof.

Amy:  My immediate reaction is that consumers are both more and less demanding. There’s definitely an overall trend towards being more demanding, but on the other hand, we’ve also seen some forgiveness because of Covid. The attitude seems to be: “we’re all in this together and let’s have some grace and be kind to essential workers.” But maybe that’s gone now.  

If consumers have become more demanding, isn’t it a good thing that brands are obsessed with CX?

Amy: If companies make chasing customer experience their only priority, at some point they’ll have to go back to the brand because that’s the thing that differentiates them. This is especially true as companies mature. Improve your customer experience, by all means, but remember that it will only take you so far because your competitors are doing the same thing. Once you fix all the pain points, you’ll lose mindshare unless you also focus on the overall brand experience.

Collin: Quality, novelty, value, and purpose — the main reasons consumers are switching brands during the pandemic — are not customer experience things but what you demonstrate with your behaviors and your beliefs. What you communicate on a brand level is so important. Going forward, people are going to be much more cognizant of the world around them. They’ll be much more conscious of how they interact with brands, who will need to deliver on those purpose-driven needs just as much as customer experience.  

Looking to learn more about how your team can strike the balance between CX and brand experience? Get in touch so we can help.

About the authors

Amy Rogoff Dunn
Amy is a passionate brand builder who searches for the connections between consumer insight, cultural foresight, and competitive landscape to find futureproof opportunities for brands and businesses. Prior to joining Material, Amy led a number of boutique brand consultancies focused on brand positioning and innovation for lifestyle brands in fashion & retail, beauty, media & entertainment, food & beverage, and travel. She got her start in general business strategy at McKinsey & Company, before diving into marketing at Ogilvy & Mather. Amy earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BS with High Honors in Engineering Math & Statistics from UC Berkeley.

Read more by Amy Rogoff Dunn
Collin Wood
Collin Wood is VP of brand strategy at Material. In his career as a brand strategy leader, Collin has had the opportunity to run a range of bespoke projects, from building out innovation pipelines, to product and brand MVP work, to running research and strategy initiatives that help organizations see themselves and their customers in a new light. He’s worked with organizations such as Plum Organics, Electronic Arts, Optimizely, Pepsi, Plenty, and Primer.ai, to name a small handful.

Read more by Collin Wood
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