The value of experience

I’ve talked a fair amount already about what it means for brands to differentiate themselves through experience, in particular in the context of, Lewis Carbone’s excellent book Clued In.

Well it couldn’t have been a more important topic at Forrester’s Consumer and Financial Services forum last week in Barcelona. The subject of a number of presentations including the keynote, Forrester has picked this as the deciding factor in the financial services market.

It’s easy to see why. With more and more sources of information and advice (from Goliaths like MoneySavingExpert or MoneySupermarket to your Uncle Bob who used to work at a bank), we now able to slice, dice and level the product market. The ability for providers to create competitive advantage through a cunning product set up and some nice marketing is heading rapidly out of the window.

This situation is not eased by ever more vigilant regulators. And what about when you think you’ve managed to get past the regulators but are treating your customers slightly less than fairly? Witness what happened to HSBC: while attempting a rate hike during the summer holidays they overlooked the power of Facebook and were eventually forced into humiliating defeat at the hands of the ‘Stop the Great HSBC Graduate Rip Off’ group and its 1000s of members.


The customers really are revolting – and not just the spotty student types.

The answer of course is to stop fighting the customer and to start giving them what they want, but on your terms.

And, what do all human beings want?

It certainly doesn’t take just one form but we can accurately say that all customers do want one thing – they want to feel better about themselves after dealing with your company.

They want to have experiences that make them feel more confident, more fulfilled, cleverer, or just plain happier. And companies that deliver better experiences will be rewarded with happier, more loyal and more profitable customers.

There’s a reason why Krispy Kreme gets to charge more than Dunkin Donuts for exactly the same product and still have customers queuing around the block. There’s a reason why BHS closed down and M&S picked up.

And so, that is the Forrester riff. Success may be about multi-channel, it may be about efficiency, it may be about product, but above all it’s about deep customer insight and using that to create experiences that customers feel positive about, so that they then spread the news about the brand. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean that every customer has to find every outcome positive. If you’re going to have to turn someone down for a loan, that can be done in better or worse ways, if someone is working out what their pension will earn them, you can’t always make the outcome happy, but you can make the experience empowering, and confidence (if not happiness) instilling.

Like all the best insights, it barely feels worth saying, once you’ve heard it but look at your everyday experiences with your bank or insurance company – on and offline – and tell me how you feel about them – or more importantly yourself – afterwards.

Leading from behind

Jay Stevens of MySpace

There were two really strong themes from the Forrester Conference last week in Barcelona. For Financial Services, it was experience based differentiation. From the point of view of consumer brands, it was all about sharing your brand, about bringing your customers inside your marketing and product efforts, and from that building a network of vocal advocates.

Good stuff, although some of the thinking seemed a little wishful. And we are, it seems, yet to find something positive for which Dove Evolution cannot take credit, although I would be highly surprised if the success of this campaign was really as planned as Ogilvy might now be saying.

We also saw some fabulously precarious positions taken by some of the speakers. In particular, a rather faltering response from Mark Taylor at Wunderman when he was asked if the rise of social media interaction meant that one of the audience members could now give up their CRM strategy which had never really started working in the first place. Taylor started with ‘No’ and then tried ‘Yes’ before realising that he wasn’t meant to have acknowledged the premise of the question!

And headline sponsor Blast Radius (big in Canada) were talking a lot to companies about, ‘the opportunity for a billion people to build your brand’. It took me a whole day to realise the fault with this slick marketing formula, even after sitting through the whole presentation which, if you’ll excuse the play on words, smelled rather too much of brand onion.

What will 1 billion people build? Will they build your brand? Nope, they’ll build their brand. And at some point it must come back down to leadership again. It reminds me of a quote from Joey Lucas in West Wing, describing the cautionary tale of ‘leaders’ in the French revolution, following a mob and saying ‘I must find out which way they are heading so that I may lead them’.

MySpace were along for the last major presentation with a very confident Jay Stevens acting much more like the owner of a major media property than the co-inventor of a new social phenomonen. A good quote though, allegedly from a MySpace user in Europe:

‘I don’t want brands to advertise to me, I want them to be my friend’

There were also lots of interesting insights too into the new typographies of ‘digital natives’ which MySpace has been researching heavily. Conveniently, for advertisers at least, we hear that MySpace’s users are there to find new and exciting things.

 I think by that he means discovering new music and new films. But maybe there’s room for discovering new toothpaste brands too.

Proving the rule

Steve Jobs presenting

I’ve spent the last couple of days at the Forrester Consumer and Financial Services (combined) forums in Barcelona. Some pretty good speakers and some interesting ideas which I’ll go into in more detail later.

Overall, it seems, a consensus has broken out around the need for brands to embrace the changing nature of media to increase their relevance, and to actively involve their customers in the marketing and innovation process.

All good stuff but leaves me with one huge question unanswered – a question asked, and inelegantly side-stepped by one of the conference’s headline speakers, Blast Radius CEO,  Gurval Caer: how come Apple, after-all the poster child for all things new, shinny and modern, doesn’t act in this way at all.

We hear that there is total secrecy around any new product launch. Every single piece of marketing, rather than being happily-clapping co-created by customers, is signed off directly by Mr Jobs himself. Twice a year at huge global media events, Jobs will announce the next big thing. And, when criticism comes, it’s neatly brushed under the apple carpet  – never an open discussion from the company. Even when the issue was huge – buyer rights and DRM, we got a letter from Steve Jobs, posted – like a prohibition notice on the factory gates – on the front of the site.

And while we’re at it, for all it’s blogging and 80/20 time, does Google really involve its customers. Does anyone really think that OpenSocial wasn’t in discussion internally at Mountain View since the Orkut purchase, or certainly since F8 rolled out. 

This isn’t a criticism of Apple, but rather a question. Given a single-minded enough focus, is there a role for more leadership from brands. Sure they’ll market to their biggest fans first but sometimes those fans would rather wait and here what the next miracle product is.