Image Credit W Carter Image Credit W Carter

If you’re a fan of the film The Matrix, then you will no doubt remember the pivotal scene in which Neo was given a choice to take the blue pill — which would keep him existing behind rose-tinted lenses — or the red pill — which would open his eyes to reality. Sarah Westwood, Creative Strategist, Our Design Agency. explains what this has got to do with brand management.

Here’s a real-life reality check: these days there are few markets where brands can gain competitive advantage through product features, distribution, or marketing. Technology and ultra-accelerated competition mean that most brands are on a level playing field in those areas.

So, do we take the blue pill and keep on doing what we’ve always done, focusing on product and visual expression? Or do we take the red pill and face the reality of the situation? The red pill means starting to ask bigger questions about how customers are experiencing your brand in the real world, and, crucially, what you might do to improve that experience.

A new perspective

To take the red pill frees our minds. It helps us challenge our assumptions and embrace a new mode of thought. For example, instead of clustering propositions to appeal to “target audiences”, we resolve to get closer to the individual customer experience.

This requires real empathy. We need to get a feel for how the brand looks to real people, what they do with it, how it makes them feel. Yet it helps us discover genuinely new perspectives and unlock the brand’s full potential. It gives us the freedom to create a total experience beyond just image, an experience that considers every interaction between brand and customer. This creates a brand that those customers and colleagues enjoy, and, importantly, want to experience again, and tell others about.

Consider how care home provider HC One, The Kind Care Company, has looked beyond the brand strategy and identity at ways to embed kindness deeply into the way that Residents and Colleagues experience the brand.

A re-imagined company brochure, makes it less a catalogue of rational facts about complex care programs, and instead a book of beautifully crafted little stories that illustrate the kind care in action. Families experiencing a moment of crisis and looking for simple reassurance reported: “it just felt right’.

Visit an HC One care home today and you will find they get the little things right, like the welcome experience, and bright, fresh flowers in reception. Carers’ badges carry unexpected facts about them - ‘Rachel, Champion Knitter’ is stopped so often in the hallway to ask about her knitting, that now she carries her knitting around in her bag to pull out discuss and share with them.

Unexpected truths

Delving more deeply into customer experience is to set off on a journey with an open mind and no assumptions about the answer. Much like Neo taking the red pill, until you start you cannot be sure where it will take you. You dive down into the rabbit hole, and very often you discover a completely brilliant but unexpected truth.

Look at BUILT/, the start-up builders’ merchant from Travis Perkins Group. Created for an emerging breed of builder, astute businesspeople who are adopting the progressive mind-set of the modern service industry. Digital natives themselves, these builders actively seek to eliminate inefficient practices. While they were standing in a long queue they weren’t appreciating all the point-of-sale materials telling them about in-store offers; they were looking impatiently at their watches.

The solution from Travis Perkins is BUILT/building supplies on demand. This new proposition values customers’ time as much as their money and efficiency is evident through every customer interaction.

In Lock and Load for example, customers can order supplies online and drive up to the loading bay where a team, behaving more like a motor-racing pit crew, quickly loads up the goods to get the customer back on the road and on-site quicker. In no time they’ll be able order a tonne of bricks in a click from the site or living room.

Aggregation of marginal gains

Some of the world’s largest and most successful brands are embracing this approach. Costa is

rightly proud of its coffee and its strong and distinctive visual identity is recognised across the world. However, Costa also understands the value of improving the entire customer experience, and we have worked closely with them to realise this.

Costa is introducing a host of new changes that together add up to a much improved customer experience. Recognising that customers congregate at the busy coffee pick up area, the brand has turned a potential negative experience into something differentiated by extending out the counter to create a Brewbar area where customers have space to find out more about their coffee while it’s being made.

A smaller change involved swapping instore communications to time-efficient magnetic boards, which not only look better, but also leave baristas less frustrated and free to do what they love best – make great coffee. These were just two of many incremental improvements – very often it is the accumulation of these marginal customer experience improvements that adds up to brand success.

Sustainable competitor advantage

Understanding customer experience creates real value for the customer and builds competitive advantage and brand preference. It reduces the costs of managing complaints, acquiring new customers and continually replacing disillusioned staff. It drives revenues through the retention of customers who are more willing to pay extra and even become advocates for a brand. In the age of social media, customers with a good experience tell nine people; those with a bad one tell sixteen. Getting it right the first time has never been more important.

More profoundly, empathising with how customers experience a brand ensures you close the authenticity gap so that their experiences reflect the marketing promise. And, because it’s based on a unique business model it allows the creation of a brand that is ownable and hard to imitate, one which produces enduring change rather than a superficial identity that will need to be changed in three years’ time.

Time to begin the journey

To stretch our Matrix analogy one last time, you’ll find that once you’ve taken the red pill you begin to look on every interaction you have with a brand with an eye on customer experience. You’ll also wonder why more people aren’t doing the same. Once you’ve taken the red pill you can’t ever see the world the same way. You’ll look at any industry and find yourself wondering why, after investing in the creation of a brand and identity, companies would leave the experience that customers have largely to chance.

The opportunity is there, and perhaps it is time to start asking whether there is opportunity for your brand here too. Are there ways you could improve your customer experience? Only you can decide. As Morpheus said to Neo: “I can only show you the door. You're the one that has to walk through it.”