Cracking the Multichannel Code: The Brand Experience

Mar 01, 2007 10:30 PM  By

The American Institute of Graphic Design defines brand as “a person’s perception of a product, service, or company.” That definition has nothing to do with a mission statement, a logo, a tagline, a color palette, or typography. Instead, brand is defined by a perception, good or bad, that your customers or prospects have about you. Every multichannel merchant has a brand, but unfortunately many do not understand that if they do not diligently manage their brand, customers will create a brand for them.

For traditional catalogers, there was a time when defining a solid brand wasn’t critical to profitability as long as they sold unique merchandise. We all know that scenario has changed. It’s always been easier for retailers to deliver a brand, through the in-store experience, using sales associates as well as sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound. Now the two worlds have collided: Catalogers must compete with the retail experience, while retailers must understand the direct model. But few merchants, even trichannel marketers with catalogs, Websites, and stores, have cracked the code.

What’s the big deal? Today it’s vital to the success of all multichannel merchants to deliver a duplicative experience, across all channels, no matter where customers choose to shop. Studies estimate that consumers are bombarded with more than 4,000 marketing messages a day. Your customers have more choices than ever before. In the past it was all about competition for their wallets, but now it’s about competition for their time as well. Think about the activities and media we spend our time with: busy family schedules, personal electronic gadgets, special-interest cable shows and magazines, outdoor adventures. And many of these were not even available 10 years ago. It’s no small miracle that consumers have any time to spend with your brand!

How do you provide the personalized experience that consumers now demand? By creating a differentiated brand that can be translated into a meaningful benefit and then delivered in an engaging experience that will connect with the hearts of customers and prospects. It’s a process that must be defined and managed, or it will not happen. Let’s break this process down into its key components.

Differentiation

Many multichannel marketers believe that being the best at something is how to define a brand. Some companies think that they differentiate themselves with cost-of-entry features such as “quick delivery” or “great customer service.” But what they don’t realize is that that these are expected benefits, not differentiating benefits. Customers now expect you to have quick delivery and great service.

The key to exponential growth is creating an “own-able” differentiation that truly means something to the marketplace…not three or five things, but one identifiable attribute that can be executed and delivered across all channels. Then and only then will customers “get it.”

A differentiated brand works because of how the human cognitive system works. Our brain acts as a filter to protect us from the vast amounts of irrelevant information surrounding us everyday — otherwise we would go mad! The brain learns to tell things apart and looks for contrasts. It is hard-wired to notice what is different, what is special. And when a brand tries to be many things all at once instead of presenting one differentiating benefit, customers’ brains will filter out that noise.

Imagine brand nirvana, when your customer has a need and seeks out you first because you were able to own a unique merchandise concept, expertise, service, or something else that resonated in their brain. This does not happen by accident, and it does not happen without your understanding the competition. Owning your “one thing” is the toughest part of creating an experiential brand. Creating your brand identity, voice, and overall messaging becomes much easier to articulate and execute once you’ve defined your brand differentiation.

Owning a single, differentiating attribute can lead to success in the multichannel world. Not owning a differentiated brand can lead to failure.

Consider the category of big-box discount stores. If I were to ask, “Who owns low prices always?” most of you would immediately say Wal-Mart. If I were to ask, “Who owns affordable style and design?” Target would most likely come to mind. Now, if I were to ask you what Kmart owns, what would come to mind? Probably nothing concrete or instantly definable, which could be a key reason Kmart has had its problems of late. It tried to own something that already existed in the marketplace and, to make matters worse, proceeded to switch back and forth between two differentiators, low prices and style.

Many multichannel merchants wonder why managing their brand identity across channels is so difficult. Usually it’s because their identity is not tied into an overarching, differentiating brand. Heed the words of Jack Trout, author of Brand Strategist: “Consumers today are faced with an explosion of choices. Those companies who fail to differentiate their product or service in the mind of the consumer won’t stand a chance.”

Higher-order benefit

It is one thing to create a differentiating brand, but to market your brand effectively it’s imperative that your entire company understand what your brand ultimately promises to customers. A brand promise can easily be articulated by filling in the following sentence: Only (your brand name) offers (a higher-order benefit) to (your target audience.) For example, “Only Harley-Davidson delivers the fantasy of complete freedom on the road and the comradeship of kindred spirits to avid cyclists.” In this case the higher-order benefit is not “really cool, loud motorcycles” but “complete freedom.” Starbucks, another well-known and successful brand, offers “indulgence and escape” not just “expensive gourmet coffees.”

To understand a relevant higher-order benefit, it’s important that you first understand the heart of your customers. What do they care about? What motivates them? What’s in it for them? Many multichannel companies fail to get to the crux of these questions. Many don’t listen to what their customers are saying except through spreadsheets. Though data are important to marketing and merchandising decisions, it’s equally important to monitor phone orders, read customer e-mails and testimonials, and in the case of retailers, observe customers as they shop your store. What are they saying? What are they doing? How do they go about making a purchase decision?

While formal focus groups and mailed surveys can be cost-prohibitive, customer feedback is essential, so you should seek out alternatives. Online surveys are a low-cost way to elicit responses. You could also consider an ongoing customer advisory board to be proactive in finding out how your customers understand and experience your brand.

Delivering an experience

The idea of a brand, and of branding in general, has undergone quite an evolution. In centuries past, people sold commodities, pure products — coffee, for example. Then a brilliant marketer decided to package the product and sell “goods” rather than plain product — say, coffee in an attractive bag. The next evolution brought the addition of services and allowed coffee to be sold at a higher price — coffee by the cup. And what happened next? Coffee has become an “experience” delivered in coffee shops the world over. And guess what? It’s sold at a much higher price! The price is not the driving factor; the experience is.

What can you learn from this? That delivering a memorable and relevant experience will not only cut through the clutter but will also drive customer loyalty and ultimately create brand evangelists — people who not only buy from you and your brand but also preach the benefits of your brand to others. Building a relevant experience is critical if your company desires exponential growth.

How do you create these experiences? Once again, the answer lies in understanding what is important to customers. What information do they seek? What do they do in their spare time? What do they enjoy? By understanding your brand differentiation and its higher-order benefit, as well as understanding your customer’s heart, you can create experiences rather than merely selling products.

“Branding from the inside out”

This term describes organizations that understand and value getting their employees on the “brand wagon.” Scott Bedbury, the former head of marketing at Starbucks, said, “We built the Starbucks brand with people, not consumers. Some of the most important brand development decisions had to do with human resources.” Starbucks never spent a dime on mass marketing. The company built its brand from the inside out, turning their employees into “baristas.”

Employees have the power to create brand experiences and those “magical moments” when customers identify with a brand. But many multichannel merchants operate in channel silos, and the brand is articulated only within the walls of the executive and marketing offices. If your brand is firmly managed at every point of contact, every employee should be familiar with your unique differentiation as well as your brand promise. When companies forget to integrate the employees into their brand promise, the result is brand “drift.”

Great brands realize that each step, from differentiation to execution, takes the customer perception further away from being a commodity and closer to a desired part of their life. If employees are aligned with the brand and the marketer takes focused risks to develop relevant customer experiences, companies have no choice but to become an insisted-upon brand.


Lois Boyle is president of J. Schmid & Associates, a catalog agency and consulting firm based in Mission, KS.

Pottery Barn’s brand experience

Perhaps the best explanation of how to deliver an experience is to describe how one brand is doing it well. Consider Pottery Barn, the home decor cataloger/retailer. Yes, Pottery Barn — part of San Francisco-based multititle mailer Williams-Sonoma — has a great merchandise concept. And yes, it has created beautiful, easy-to-shop catalogs. And yes, its stores are warm and inviting. Pottery Barn could have stopped there. Instead it continues to take its brand to the next level by creating a multichannel experience. Pottery Barn understands that its differentiator is “comfortable style.” But it also realizes that its customers are identifying with a lifestyle, so Pottery Barn has made help them achieve that lifestyle goal. Here are a few of its brand-enhancing techniques:

  • It has added tips in its catalog (i.e. “how to design for small living spaces”) to help the customer, similar to an interior designer.

  • With Benjamin Moore, it created a palette of paints that allows customers to “extend the experience” past the purchase of furniture.

  • The in-store experience does not stop at cozy micro-rooms but includes the use of scent and of sound in the form of branded music compilation CDs sold in the stores.

  • A new feature on its Website showcases “StyleHouse,” which offers dozens of lifestyle tips such as “how to throw a wine and cheese party” that provides relevant content as well as reference Pottery Barn products.

  • Its “Design, Decor, and More” feature on CBS’s Early Show offers segments such as “Home Trends for 2007” and “Rugs 101.”

  • It uses e-mail not only to sell product and present offers but also to invite customers to store events such as a “complimentary holiday decorating class.”

Pottery Barn, like all other great brands, understands that creating a brand experience requires focus and diligence. This focus is not the result of one brilliant marketer but is collectively managed by cross-channel teams within an organization.
LB