Defining brand experiences in a digital world

In 'Brand-erstanding; bringing a UX centred approach to brand creation' I spoke about the way digital is transforming and defining both our experiences and the meaning we derive from our daily interactions with brands. I also highlighted the way in which it’s playing a key role in re-defining trust relationships and our perception of brands as symbolic institutions in their own right.

We’re now going to look at what this means in a little more detail, starting with a comparison of ‘old’ and ‘new’ branding.

Digital experience and brand interpretation

Let’s open with a basic model of today’s digital-predominant brand experience process and what this means.

The first points to note are that there are two routes into how we form an opinion and derive meaning. I’ve named these routes direct and indirect in the above diagram. Together they form what I’m calling ‘Convergent experiences.’ 

Whilst the indirect channel was not wholly absent as an influencing factor in traditional brand systems (e.g. pre-digital), its salience has been greatly heightened through the use of social media. Back in the days of Kotler on Marketing, a commonly quoted statistic was that those having a ‘bad customer experience’ would typically tell 13-14 others of they poor experience. Whilst we all need to be aware of the dangers accompanying any form of ‘declared averages’, it’s fair to say that social media has effectively blown this statistic exponentially out of the literal water. After all, our desire to have a seemingly ‘informed’ opinion on all things is outweighed by our physical (and cognitive) capabilities to have a sufficient level of direct experience in all matters). 

And branding is no different in this respect. 

Digital branding and brand experience

As far back as 2006, Kelly Mooney was starting to contrast the potential transformational nature of digital on branding and brand experience.

At the heart of this transformation lay the fundamental shift from the so-called closed control and command structures in which brands spoke at us through relatively linear and narrow channels of communication to one which is characterised by a dynamism and openness whose energy comes from a collective whole of direct and indirect experiences.

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky were Israeli-American psychologists and academics working in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. They are widely attributed as being the fathers of ‘Behavioural Economics’ and the idea that human decision-making is governed by a number of fundamental biases or heuristics. This stands in stark contrast to the notion of humans as rational, information seekers and decision-makers, the view largely postulated in economic circles up to this time. 

Tversky and Kahneman would have no doubt derived a cognitive heuristic or bias to reflect this fact, although it’s probably lurking in one of their existing biases, just waiting to bust out.

It’s therefore not unreasonable for those to both talk about and influence the perceptions of brands of others, based purely on their social media activity, without ever having any direct contact or interaction with the brand. 

Some brand experience creators have known this for a long time and it’s one of the reasons, in my opinion, behind the concept of ‘moments of truth’ as a way of articulating how people truly derive meaning and value from their brand interactions. 

Interestingly, viewing this briefly from the converse side, this implies that anything else is logically an ‘untruth’, but let’s not go there. For now, at least.

This disparate brand meaning and interpretation picture is further complicated by the highly fragmented and distributed media landscape, again driven by digital and what some might refer to as its ‘democratising’ qualities of communication.

Those of us who lived through the seemingly barren pre-digital media landscapes of radio, TV (three channels - yes, just three!) and print media will testify to the heavy, top-down and push-driven nature of pre-digital media communications.

In many respects it can therefore be rightly argued that digital has played a major role in helping to stand this traditional view of branding and communication on its head. 

Whether they be direct or indirect for many of us today, it’s our actions which form a key start point for many of our brand interactions, experiences and interpretations.

The atypical social proofing behaviours many of us adhere to in the run-up to making a purchase or booking highlights this rapid shift from indirect to direct experience channels as we seek the ‘apparent’ validation of strangers to inform our purchase activity.

Dispelling the 'brand promise' myth

Now seems a good time to dispel another misarticulation commonly associated with branding (in both a traditional and digitally-driven sense). 

That misconception comes in the form of brand as being synonymous with a ‘promise’. 

I for one would replace this with ‘expectation that life can be simply be better or express who we really are’. 

Here’s why. 

If you look at the aspirational nature of branding, any self-respecting consumer will realise that it’s unlikely that they’ll be purchasing a promise that they will become immediately irresistible to the opposite sex simply by spraying a combination of synthesised chemical solutions under each armpit.

This is no more a ‘promise’ than a largely misguided belief that we can actually create and control the sensations users will experience when they interact with our brand. 

However, what we can provide is the clarity of expectation and what we should be seeking to deliver on as a guiding principle of our branding and brand experience creation thinking. 

This clarity of meaning and interpretation will be judged through the meaning that those who engage - directly or indirectly - take from the interaction with our brand. And the actions they take as a result of their interactions.

At best, we should therefore look to increase the probability that the experience has its desired effect(s) through seeking the contexts and parameters within which the experience actually takes place.

In terms of setting a ‘promise’, as brand creators we seek to deliver a better experience or solution to a challenge (explicit or implicit) and our success may be accounted for in many ways, not all of which will become immediately apparent, nor solely limited to financial measures and ROI metrics.

Of course, we absolutely need to justify our work as it requires investing funding and time to make it happen, but this needs to be accompanied by and driven by an appropriate shift in mind-set. Namely, it’s about changing hearts and minds and not just measurable behaviours.

This shift is one which requires confidence in one’s own thinking and those of others. Without this, we’re effectively embarking on a branding exercise as a largely tokenistic, ‘kiss me quick’ gesture in which it’s about be seen to be doing the right thing activity.

Now, that can only end badly, a bit like UI without the UX.

Where are we going next?

Our next logical step is to start talking about a brand creation framework and that’s where we’ll be going in the next and final article of this three-part series. 

For more information on creating an engaging brand, take a look at our work with Nimbl.

To find out how Nomensa can help with your next UX project, contact us on +44 (0)117 929 733, email us on [email protected] or complete a Contact Us form.

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