Is good UX killing great brand experience?

Brand Building Experiences

Learning For Tomorrow

I recently received an email from the University that I lecture at asking for my feedback on their LFT (Learning for Tomorrow) programme which, in a nutshell, is considering whether in the short term they will continue to run ‘in person’ lectures at all, or consider other online options permanently. It made me think about the now frequently quoted McKinsey report on how Covid had advanced digital adoption and migration by 5 years or more. At the time we probably thought the report was interesting if maybe a bit exaggerated….. Looking at my survey it feels like a huge understatement now. This is not so much a case of acceleration, Covid has been a ‘Sliding Doors’ moment; a break from the trajectory that we were on previously and a necessary leap onto a related but utterly changed parallel reality. The way that we all interact with each other, or more accurately expect to interact with each other, has completely changed. 

I observed a clear narrative curve with regards to how business around the world adapted to digital interactions during the first year of the global pandemic. 

Phase 1) was the initial panic, during which businesses fretted that their existing business models were not viable in the new Covid world. However very quickly we all moved to 

Phase 2) when we discovered Zoom and Teams and we breathed a sigh of relief once we realised that actually we could do business quite effectively in this way. In fact, maybe this was better, more flexible, involving less commuting, less time wasted in meetings. 

Phase 3) crept in within a few months however as the gleam of our shiny new digital toys wore off and we realised that this was not actually quite the same. Meeting people face to face involves a wide range of non-linguistic communications techniques that are considerably more difficult while everyone talks over each other on Zoom. You miss seeing the ‘whites of each other eyes’,  the grimace from the guy in the corner while his colleague talks, you realise that many of the most important aspects of effective communication are the things that are not said, or are said in the breaks between sentences. That the physical gap that we bridged with technology is also a communications gap that is more difficult to bridge. 

“The physical gap that we bridge with technology is also a communications gap that is more difficult to bridge”

Phase 4) or as I think of it ‘not-another-fcking-webinar’ took hold a few months after that, as every brand took to the web in more or less the same way; gleefully creating online content and interactions that look, sound and feel the same. 

Phase 5) is what I am most interested in; what happens next. Clearly some brands, like my Uni are right at the front of this ‘what next’ phase, but not many brands are ready to ask the kind of disruptive, difficult questions that they are.

It feels to me that Covid has shone a bright but harsh light on the way that brands are currently using the web. 

The Experience Economy

In their 1999 book ‘The Experience Economy’ (interesting, worth a read) Pine and Gilmore made a claim that we were moving into a fourth economic age, (having moved through Commodities, Goods, and then Service economies) characterised by consumer spending on experiences and experience brands. This is driven by technology that now makes customisation and personalisation possible at scale. This thinking has been adopted by most of the world’s most ambitious and progressive brands like Apple (yawn!) with their Apple stores. Nike is another interesting example, I read the other day that the average Nike Town store now features 43% traditional retail space (shoes and whatnot) with the rest taken up by experience space; basketball courts, running machines, design studios to pimp your new sneaks etc. The desire is to create spaces where people can really immerse themselves in the brand, (not just the products); spaces that bring the brand to life and provide powerful connections with the customers. 

However, while many brands have invested billions into becoming ‘experience brands’ in the ‘real’ world, their web presence remains incredibly functional and transactional. There are some lovely bright colours, nice photography and a site that is UX designed to keep me there as long as possible but none of the creative, experiential thinking that we find offline. 

Note: https://samprice.tv/#/nike-air-house-installation/ is a great example of how products can express themselves in a digital world and has the potential to tap into the popularity of NFT artworks by minting unique digital assets to accompany physical products.

What is E-missing?

Despite our move into the experience economy over the last few decades, experience appears to be the thing that has failed to fully transition online.

A recent report by Accenture titled ‘The Business of Experience’ digs into these issues; identifying that brands will increasingly need to ‘replicate or replace’ the physical aspects of experience online, specifically the ability to produce immersive experiences that target emotional connections in the online environment, extending the experience environment into the home. 

Experiences are the interaction between our internal selves and the outside world. The thing that is most critical and unique about experiences is the fact that they are dynamic (involve some kind of interaction between the brand and the participant) and therefore subjective (experienced differently by each person). The combination of these two characteristics means that experiences produce a response that is confidently held and strongly influences behaviour. As Einstein said ‘Experience is learning, everything else is just information’.

So what?

This shift into the ‘experience economy’ represents a massive opportunity for brands but it also represents a challenge. In this new reality consumers (both B2C and B2B) no longer compare brands within categories, because they tend now to engage with them in the same digital environment. If they receive a great, immersive and intuitive experience online from Netflix, Amazon or their local Museum, they don’t see why they should expect a crap one from their bank, their gas supplier or their accountants. These consumers know what is possible  now and are not willing to compromise, or at least not for much longer. 

A recent survey by Appnation about ‘The Digital Consumer’ reported that 84% of consumers, regardless of industry, hope for and expect more online interactions and experiences, including those categories that traditionally operate ‘in-person’, with those traditional in-person experiences expected to move increasingly on-line and touchless.

Brand Building Experiences

These are trends that are particularly important to Juicebox with our focus on ‘Brand Building Experiences’ (BBE).

Juicebox exists in a digital world, so our focus is on bringing the power of experience into the digital realm. The shift in thinking that we bring is probably best described by a shift in focus from ‘functionality’ to ‘purpose’. 

The existing experience paradigm in the web space is dominated by the UX mindset; the pursuit of a zero friction journey through a website. Don’t get me wrong, we have some of the best UX designers in the business working at JB and they are critical to what we do.  On its own, though, UX exists within a restricted viewpoint as it traditionally asks ‘How can we make this website experience as good as it can be.’

BBE takes a different approach. BBE asks ‘What can we do to bring this brand to life, what experience do we need to create to give consumers the opportunity to truly connect with this brand, in an enduring, scalable and behaviour-changing way.’

We don’t look at BBEs as a website but as an almost limitless opportunity to find new ways to get closer to your customers. 

My feedback to the Uni therefore will be to encourage them to think not only about the UX of learning; the functional merits of one system over another, but also to dwell on the issue of ‘purpose’. What are these new formats actually trying to achieve; Can lectures be replaced by a digital format? absolutely. no question, but what else do the opportunities for face-to face interaction achieve? How will they replicate the ability for the lecturer to spot the kid who is struggling or falling behind, or just as importantly; the kid who seems atypically engaged and a candidate for an extra nudge towards greatness. How will lecturers tap into the energy of a room of young, passionate and creative thinkers; the future of their topic. Potentially even more important, what is the  X University experience? what is unique about that particular uni and how do students and prospective students expect to experience it.

If you’d like to find out what this could look like or your business, we would love to bring it to life for you.  

Andy Davey is Juicebox Director of Strategy and a PhD student researching the influence of experience on consumer behaviour.

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