Customer experience in the brand context: branding through services instead of branding of services.
This text is an adaptation of a presentation given on March 2014. It reports the recent developments on my research on the development of the ‘Brand Experience Manual’ and the ‘Brandslation’ process as an approach to service branding, here defined as “translating intangible brand concepts into customers experience through service interactions”. The text begins by pointing some reasons of the disjunction between branding and customer experience, moving towards introducing academic literature that starts to conciliate the two fields and ends by reporting the current status of our research in the development of the Brand Experience Manual concept as the outcome of the Brandslation process.
Brand vs. Customer Experience: The origins of the problem
Many times, in a corporation, one can find branding and customer experience as two conflicting organizational silos, where the first is usually focused on making promises through advertisement and marketing actions, while the second focuses in delivering the customer experience through the service.
Recently, while talking with a colleague, he told me an interesting case where a consultancy designed a new service for their client, and although all the people in the customer experience department people loved the idea, it didn’t go forwards as the brand department criticized it for not being aligned with the brand proposition.
On my first paper (Motta-Filho, 2012) I interviewed about 13 brand and service design agencies from 5 countries. A common problem was that brand manuals were not made for the design of service, leaving the service designers without a proper brand input. Having no adequate information, the most common solution for these consultancies was to get immersed in the company, and try, by reading the visual communication manual, website and feeling the company, understand what the brand is about.
After getting to know the field a bit more, I came to realize that many times not even this research is done. As I worked more with service designers, I could see that this process of understanding the brand was many times left behind due time and cost pressure, leaving focus completely on developing solution based only on the customers’ needs.
Also, many times, ‘Service Design’ is equated to a customer-oriented perspective, which is nice, don’t get me wrong, it is very important, but in many cases this approach lacks strategic focus. Reading a bit more on this brand vs. customer experience dichotomy I came across a blog post from a big consultancy where they stated, “customer experience is the new brand”.
Image (1): Fight between Customer Experience and Branding
Its is also not rare to see people saying that branding is what was done in the 90’s, and the 2000’s is about customer experience; as they are opposed, and again, the brand vs. customer experience dichotomy emerges. It seems that in the current mindset, focusing on brand always comes at the expense of the customer experience. But I don’t think these two fields are completely divided, and that’s what my research is trying to show by conciliating Brand and Customer Experience, as we believe these two fields not only can, but should be integrated, thus providing a brand-based customer experience.
Brand as the Experience of the Customer Experience
To explain what I mean, I usually like to present the comparison between Virgin Atlantic and British Airways as an example. Both companies can offer a great service, delivering excellent experience through their services, they can be flawless from beginning to the end, but once you start to think about the experience they offer you will realize that hey are quintessentially different. You may describe your experience with Virgin as ‘entertaining’ and ‘wicked’ and use words such as ‘traditional’ and ‘refined’ for British Airways. You may even start describing these airlines as persons, talking about their service personality.
Service experiences are not just good or bad as it is commonly measured on customer’s journeys and service blueprints, they can also carry qualities and be meaningful, and that’s what we are talking about, these embedded meanings in the experience, and especially who and what defines these meanings.
When I was in the beginning of my PhD studies, some colleagues and me where at a workshop in one of the CSI (Centre for Service Innovation research project) partner companies. During the discussion, one participant from the company management teams exclaimed: “Let’s make the perfect brand experience for our customers”. Two seconds later he turns to us and asks: “But, what is our brand experience anyways?”
For me, the previous two examples show how the brand can help to define the proposition of the ‘customer experience’. I would go even further to say that ‘customer experience’ without brand input runs the serious risk of lacking strategy, and also, branding without ‘customer experience’ does not exist, as the brand only become alive through customer interaction. So, translating a to practical level: Service design (which focuses on customer experience) needs brands to add a strategic level to its project, and brands needs service design to exist.
The Academic move towards Brand-Based Customer Experiences
Recently in academia there has been a move towards what one can call (by the long name of) ‘brand-based customer experience strategy development’. In that sense I would like to point to some papers that can help to explain this progression. The first one is Urde (1999), which although is not fully covering the subject, lays the foundation for a brand based customer strategy approach. Urde’s (1999) paper suggests balancing a ‘resource perspective’ (internal capabilities) with the ‘market-orientation’ (customer-centricity) by leveraging the brand as a strategic resource, in Urde’s words, ‘Brand-Orientation’.
Although his work focuses on products, it serves as a great analogy for the situations with services. Urde (1999) suggests that being brand-oriented doesn’t mean forgetting the customer focus, it only means adding a new layer where the brand becomes the framework where the customer’s needs are fulfilled, and that the brand identity is taken as an internal resources and a competitive advantage.
The second academic work that is worth mentioning is Toni-Matti Karjalainen’s research on semantic transformation. Karjalainen (2004) proposes a process that enables a brand-orientation to become real; his work focuses on transforming the brand concepts into design featured by using semiotics. This idea was implied in Urde’s work, but Urde (1999) did not explore how to operationalize it. Although Karjalainen’s work was also based in a product design perspective, his research started to point on how to make this translation from concept into design cues.
A third researcher that I would like to call attention for is Clatworthy (2012). On his paper, Clathworthy proposes a service based semantic transformation model based on Karjalainen’s (2004) product-based one. Clatworthy’s model use a megaphone as an analogy, there, the brand DNA is translated into a service personality, which will be then “amplified” to the audience through the services touch-points, behaviors and tone of voice.
Image (2): Brand Megaphone from Clatworthy (2012)
Finally, building on these works, Motta-Filho (2012) started to develop the concept of Brand Experience Manual. Researching on the status of current brand manuals and their usability for service design projects. Motta-Filho (2012) then suggests that the current brand manuals are not adequate for service design as they are either too broad (value based, which are ill defined) or too narrow (touch-point implementation guidelines, which are too specific), thus proposing the concept of Brand Experience Manual as “an approach to communicate the brand strategy to the NSD and internal teams that focus on defining what is the experience the brand is trying to deliver”
These 4 papers give us a short view of the academic efforts to integrate customer experience with branding, making the brand a strategic lighthouse for the products and services.
Current Situation on Brand Based Customer Experience
Although these researchers show us that there is a move towards using the brand as the base for a customer experience strategy in academia, a recent report by Cory Munchbach from Forrester shows that only 18% of the companies use the brand as the base for their customer experience strategy.
On Motta-Filho (2012), I discussed about the lack of proper brand input for service designers. By that time, it seemed to me that this situation was the result of the strong product orientation (as opposed to Vargo’s and Lusch’s service dominant logic) focus of the current brand manuals that are meant to convey visual communication guidelines for designers and are focused on, as a consultant which I recently talked with called, ‘value-based branding’.
The problem with value-based branding is that they describe the values in a very broad way, which are not very useful for service design, and even though they might have some use for product companies, it is not rare for those to have design manuals to cover the gap between brand and product design. Also these design manuals are not ideal for service design, as they tend to be very product-specific. Even when a design manual covers a retail environment, they turn out to be narrow, like a touch-point implementation manual that service designers creating new experience can’t really use. This way we ended up in a situation where the manuals are either too broad or too specific.
Brandslation and the Brand Experience Manual
So, since we have nothing yet that is useful for the design of service experiences, my research decided to focus on that. Lately we have been working at the development the concept of “Brand Experience Manual” as the outcome of the Brandslation process. The idea behind the Brandlation process is to translate the brand strategy into customer experiences by developing a ‘Service Personality’ (a set of desired impressions that should convey the brand characteristics to the customer); this desired perception is then communicated to the service design teams through the Brand Experience Manual.
The concept of Service Personality, as been previously mentioned, was developed and tested by Clatworthy on his “brand megaphone” model. Although this concept might get confused with Brand Personality, we stick to it because it has already been tested and proved to work well with interdisciplinary teams, conveying the concept idea in a very straightforward way. The main difference between brand and service personality is in their use. Since the term ‘brand personality’ is already owned by marketing, we needed an expression that could refer to the same thought, but focused on the development of experiences without going into a political ownership fight.
The Brandslation process starts by understanding what are the current experiences emerging across the interaction with different actors around the brand. For example, a telecommunication company has many different actors interacting in the value creation network: the mobile manufacturer, app developers, third part sales people, contact centers, the mobile connection itself. So, we start by mapping the most relevant actors in this value creation network, and what are the experiences that emerge in the interaction of those actors across the customer journey.
Image (3): Framework for the process
This is important to ground any desired brand experience proposition in reality. Although later in the process we keep with the good experiences, and reframe the bad ones, so the desired brand is wishful, by doing this exercise the brand experience proposition is sill in touch with reality.
As I just mentioned, the experiences that emerged in the journey are organized into ‘keep’ – the good ones and the exact opposite of bad ones (only when feasible); and ‘discard’ – the bad or irrelevant experiences.
Once the desired experiences are organized, they must be filtered through the brand, that’s where the alignment between brand and experience takes place. We map the most brand-relevant experiences in the center of the target, and the least relevant on the outside. This will give us a set of qualities that are relevant to deliver a brand-based experience, but is yet not enough. At this stage the information is still a bit too messy to be usable.
Next, we use the clusters of experiences on the target and express them as personality traits. In this sense, personality traits are a collection of qualities, adjectives that express the experience. It is important at this stage to keep the information regarding these qualities, as it is very important for defining exactly what we mean by these personality traits, avoiding this way the ‘value-based branding’ trap.
Once the personality traits are organized and defined, we have a good description of the service personality. Now we must translate those traits, which are perception based, into behaviors – actions that engage the customer into the perception of the desired personality trait. These actions describe the way the service company must act towards the customer interactions, and might become very similar to the personality traits.
At this stage in our research, we are still a bit unsure of how to solve this problem. The idea is to focus on experience creation, thus behaviors, but we also aim for the customer to perceive the personality traits.
In this sense, what we call ‘service principles’ might help to solve this issue by taking a straighter approach to creating the service personality and behaviors. Instead of informing what are the desired perception or actions, the “design principles’ guides the service design process into embedding the behaviors into the new service processed hat will render the experience.
In a more detailed level we are also working in developing the ‘touch-point principles’, or touch-point design guidelines. The idea is to instruct service designers in a more specific level on how to embed the desired experience in the new service touch-points. Instead of focusing on the design of one specific touch-point, the touch-point principles gives guidance for the design of all touch-points at a certain channel, for example, instead of focusing on a specific app or website, it focused on as mobile or web channel as whole.
Research Status, Future Developments
So, this is the current stage of my research. We had a full pilot on fall 2013, and before that, three rounds of “development through research” of the process. Soon we will be starting a new round with another partner company where we hope we will solve these issues, and I believe we are very close to an applicable model that can be easier to replicate.
The format for the “Brand Experience Manual” is also under construction, although we also have a fairly good idea of how it should be, it is a moving target, as each brand might require a different way of expressing their experience. So far the main outcome for our pilot studies was a video showing an animation with a character going through a service journey based on the design principles, and a presentation where the principles are explained.
Now we are moving towards the use of an analogy with the traditional brand manuals. Current brand manuals communicate to designers how to apply the brand in visual communication elements, thus we aim at developing a manual that can help service designers apply the desired experience in the services they create.
I would like to conclude by saying that I believe that branding through services, or service branding, as I have been calling it, is a way great way of integrating branding and customer experience. Also I believe that this approach adds what Urde (1999) calls “resources perspective’ to the customer experience, thus helping the company to use it’s internal capabilities and brand proposition as a way to convey a unique offering that may create a lasting competitive advantage.
– Motta-Filho, M. (2012) – The Brand Experience Manual: Addressing the Gap Between Brand Strategy and New Service Development –, Proceedings from the 2012 International Design Management Research Conference
– Clatworthy, S. (2012). Bridging the Gap Between Brand Strategy and Customer Experience. Managing Service Quality, 22(2), 108-127
– Karjalainen, T. M. (2004). Semantic Transformation in Design: Communicating strategic brand identity through product design references. Helsinki: University of Art and Design of Helsinki.
– Urde, M. (1999). Brand Orientation: A Mindset for Building Brands Into Strategic Resources. Journal of Marketing Management, 15(1-3), 117-133.
– Brandslation is a registered trademark of AHO (Oslo School of Architecture and Design) – 2013