For the past 40 years, futurists, economists, and media mavens have debated which business strategies are best suited for the networked, postindustrial era. In his 1971 book, Future Shock, the futurist Alvin Toffler talked about the upcoming "experiential industry," in which people would be willing to allocate high percentages of their salaries to live amazing experiences.
Toffler’s prediction has proven prophetic. We are happy to visit Disneyland or pay real money for virtual goods because they amuse and delight us. Brands are symbols of experiences, and we have learned not to question brand premiums. Spending $200 for an Armani shirt makes perfect sense because the luxury experience and self-expression create an intangible value beyond the mere cloth.
Apple has been held up as the definitive example of how to integrate a brand and its products and services to create an extraordinary company. The stock market, the ultimate arbiter of American business success, now places more value on a design-driven company than tech titans like Microsoft and Google.
At the risk of being a cliché, looking to Apple as a model also highlights the challenges facing brands that are not Apple. Few others have architected the same control of their product ecosystem. Still, the takeaway is that all companies must adopt a focus on integrating brand with product and service. From those that do it well (Amazon, Tiffany & Co.) to those that still need fine-tuning (Facebook, Walmart), all brands are challenged to consistently deliver coherent and satisfying product and service experiences to customers. And while the "Apple era" should be cause for optimism for designers and brands alike, there are still major organizational roadblocks to success, including the alignment of internal teams, budgets, and common definitions.
Companies need to start thinking about the holistic experience between their brands, products, and services. Crafting an experience requires design that considers these three elements of brand, product, and service in order to generate successful results. Any company can be analyzed through these lenses to evaluate the experience it creates for its customers.
The iPhone is a product that delivers services and fulfills the promise of the Apple brand. Other examples abound: Nike Fuel, Amazon Kindle, and HBO Go. Put another way, a product is an experience that occurs in the moment. A service is a relationship that extends over time and across platforms and mediums. A brand is much more than the logo; it is the pattern our brains expect based on everything we have previously heard, seen, and felt. All of these components roll up into the larger experience.
Many organizations face structural challenges that prevent these three elements from working together harmoniously. Many brands deliver products and services across hundreds of channels to millions of customers, but few of these are truly integrated. In theory, the brand and its products and services should be designed to work in tandem; a brand’s voice and promise should inform the products that are built and the surrounding services that are delivered to customers.
The reality is much messier. Products are often designed and developed based on business requirements, then passed on to the marketing team, which may or may not communicate with the brand department. Factor in the constantly evolving nature of emerging social technologies, and the current ecosystem becomes even more complicated. A tremendous amount of the value experience design consultants add is in getting these different silos to speak and at least attempt to align with one another.
As designers, we are often frustrated when our visions are not implemented. To make matters worse, even though our clients want to eliminate organizational barriers to successful experience design, many stumble at implementation. They agree with practitioners’ aspirational rhetoric but hit walls creating internal consensus and accountability.
The crux of the problem is that building great experiences is everyone’s responsibility and nobody’s job. United Airlines may be losing customers and revenue for many reasons. Maybe their products and services fail to deliver on the brand promise. Perhaps it’s that their brand’s voice doesn’t match their product and service offerings. Diagnosing the problem is one thing, mending it another. Since the brand, the products, and the services are intertwined, whose responsibility is it to fix the situation? Which budget will fund it, and how will success be measured?
In a perfect world, this would be the responsibility of the chief experience officer. The CXO would recognize and react to the changing needs, expectations, and emotions of customers, working with all internal divisions to ensure that the brand and its products and services were all orchestrated to deliver the greatest possible customer experience. In this model, the customer experience would be owned by the CXO and extended and executed by the entire company. But is this really the answer? Imagine the challenge of creating an officer role that is cross-functional and operational but also tactical. Then, there are a slew of issues, ranging from budget to level of authority, that such a role would carry.
Fortunately, you can sidestep all that mess while still creating an opportunity to generate proven, tangible results. Rather than waiting to be invited or appointed, try this thought experiment: If CXO were your title, what would you do first? Success relies on understanding the components that create an overall experience and how those components are delivered. Because the design of that experience crosses internal divisions, this demands the breakdown of budgetary and organizational silos.
We also need to set goals and measure success in new and useful ways. The industry understands how to quantify sales, awareness, conversation, referral, and click-through rates. Measuring experience is far murkier. Brands have to empathize with users to understand which elements—measurable or not—shape their experiences, and transform how they work together to create those experiences.
Hoping a CXO will swoop in and save a company is unrealistic. But we can take immediate action in the following ways.
The days of centrally controlled brands are over. Your brand is a pattern comprised of interfaces, interactions, and experiences. This requires designing for coherence over consistency, allowing you to respond to customer needs in a more relevant fashion. Empowering employees to act autonomously allows them to create better, more personalized experiences.
Data, once understood, is an unbiased source of information that reveals customers’ motivations, desires, and pain points. Every designer must dig into the data to discover the meaning behind the metrics. Of course, not all data are created equal. The most helpful approach begins when the right question is being asked, something a cross-disciplinary team is in the best position to do.
Most of us fight hard for our budgets and have discrete tasks and activities assigned to them. But if the overarching goal is to create products and services your customers will find valuable, then all departments—from product development to branding and marketing—will need to pool resources in order to achieve common goals.
Venture capitalists demand that entrepreneurs fail fast to allow for rapid and efficient understanding of what works and does not. Move toward a more agile approach to product and service design. This will enable you to test, refine, validate, and constantly improve on the customer experience. An agile approach reduces risk while providing the necessary feedback to innovate quickly and appropriately. This requires building in budget and time to prototype, test, and refine.
Great experiences are the best form of advertising. Your marketing team should be just as focused on creating and improving the product and service experiences as they are on advertising. Use marketing for the insights it generates and enhance products with content experiences your customers will want to talk about.
Ultimately, we all recognize a great experience when we encounter it, but designing your own is elusively difficult. The days of perfect plans within a top-down hierarchy are over. Instead, we need to influence our companies to embrace shared values and product principles. Then, each of us can be a chief experience officer creating memorable experiences and a cohesive, engaging, and delightful brand.
Method is an international experience design firm focused at the intersection of brand, product, and service design. Its 10x10 series is a collection of thought pieces written by Method’s own leaders that highlights new approaches and ways of thinking about varying industry challenges, needs, and trends. Read more at 10x10.method.com.