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Don’t believe the hype–rethink brand experience

Wayne Deakin
Don’t believe the hype–rethink brand experience
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In today’s world, change is a constant. Transformation is happening all over, in every sector, at top speed. Yet established rules, myths and formulas remain and are held tight, especially around brand experience and customer journeys. With the pressure on to catch up and keep up, however, yesterday’s frictionless approaches shouldn’t just be challenged by those wanting to succeed but, where appropriate, ignored.

And for brands, this means rethinking experience and the role it plays in creating meaningful customer moments that build deeper loyalty. Let me explain.

What’s changing

With the journey towards digitisation and connectivity accelerated by rapid advances – made both by tech giants in terms of roll-out, and consumers in terms of behaviour – how we now live is now vastly different and constantly evolving.

More of us now live in cities than not, for example. And cities are transforming, developing, and expanding at amazing rates thanks to high-tech materials, sensor networks, and better data which are letting architects, designers, and planners work smarter and more precisely to make it all more environmentally sound, more fun, and more beautiful.

How we shop and buy is unrecognisable from just a few years ago. Technology has changed the everyday way we buy things: NFCs, contactless, predictive data, the list of innovations goes on. Being creative, and what this looks like, is also being contested with AI, and emerging technologies are constantly redefining what creativity looks like. 

Even the concept of identity is changing. But it’s not just male, female, gender neutral, or fluid – even self-identifying as non-human, like an avatar, is becoming more commonplace. And we all have different versions of our own identity according to context – for example, we could have a professional identity on LinkedIn but a social one on Kakao Talk or Instagram.

This reappraisal and redefining of gender and how self-identity is recognised is being driven by Gen Z and Gen Alpha. And with these two groups now numbering close to 2.5 billion, this is not something you can ignore.

What this means for brands

In the light of all this, it is inevitable that top-down traditional linear techniques, to establish or build brands, aren’t going to work as they used to. The reason’s simple: how people experience a brand is no longer a straight path. The gap between physical and digital is converging, with a hybrid present now upon us.

So modern brands now need to be created or refreshed in vastly different ways. Across channels and media, and from physical retail to the metaverse, consumers now face a continuous barrage of choices and noise, making a brand’s job of standing out even harder.

Yesterday’s rules that were once best-practice are fast becoming obsolete, pressuring the C-suite to re-align their organisational structures and cultures to new modern world realities. But companies also need brands that can scale, while at the same time be agile, fluid and stretch across marketing, product and employee cultures as consumers’ behaviours tear down silos.

The old ways that fell out of step, and recent developments are shaping new ways

When the world pivoted from analogue to digital, our industry became obsessed with speed. But in many recent cases, this obsession has been to the detriment of brands.

We’ve become obsessed with being frictionless and seamless, for example. This was important a few years ago as we digitally transformed our businesses, of course, but today, technology is more ubiquitous and equally distributed and this means speed isn’t the primary factor to make consumers love you anymore.

UX experts have become over-obsessed with the ‘cult of 3 clicks’, too, and have frantically pushed this – making it their agenda despite the changing behaviours we now experience. As a result, lots of brands have ended up narrow or ‘bland’.

Recent experience also provides important lessons for how brands’ approach must evolve from here. The global pandemic reformed how we see ourselves, for example.

COVID reminded us of the 300,000 years of DNA that make us human. And it taught us both that we want to be closer and more human than ever, and that a critical way to be so is through the storytelling and human interaction that has for so long underpinned human history. We are hard-wired as pattern thinkers to look and seek out meaning and connections.

3 ways to re-think brand experience

How, then, to re-think brand experience for a modern world? There are many different ways this can be done. Here are three:

First, make friction your friend.

Since the earliest days of digital, received wisdom has been that success depends on eliminating friction. But this demonstrates a misunderstanding of friction and how it can be valuable to humans – and is.

The rock brand Queen was told ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ being six minutes long wouldn’t work as a music single because traditional singles were three minutes long, so audiences wouldn’t listen. But, of course, the experts were wrong – that track is now the world’s most popular single track streamed. Why? Because of the power of its story. It played with emotions, senses, and challenged our everyday to be new, interesting and engaging. Its length – the friction – isn’t bad, it’s a tool to create narrative and emotion.

The lesson from this for brands is that building meaningful storytelling into a brand is an incredibly powerful tool to engage and to create relevancy in a world losing personality. Move beyond frictionless to use friction in a positive and meaningful way to help give your brand more meaning.

Second, don’t obsess about speed on your journey

Speed can be overrated. Obviously, it is important in some contexts. But generally, if someone is interested in your brand, speed is a long way down the list.

For brands, the journey is a powerful tool.

Think of a kid’s playground slide. Travelling from A to B on the ground is one experience, but travel the same distance by slide from top to bottom and your experience becomes more interesting – and fun. And, with the added post ripple effect of remembered enjoyment once the experience is over, you are more likely to want to share your experience with others or remember it after.

For brands, speed might be important for low-interest behaviours but, if you want to create a lasting bond that connects with people’s values, speed isn’t the driving factor.

Third, be more Kardashian, be more ‘composable’

In other words, be more open as a brand – let people be part of your brand and let them feel more part of your everyday interactions.

Consider atomic design. Just as all matter is made from atoms that combine to form molecules, which in turn make up more complex organisms, atomic design involves breaking a digital design down into its basic components and then working up from there to create a site or product.

This principle is relevant for how we should build brands as a brand today must be a living breathing ecosystem of parts. This means being flexible and adaptive – more ‘composable’.

Some of today’s most successful brands allow users to influence or personalise their interactions and connections with a brand. Even Apple, known for its rigid design system, has dropped its walled garden and now lets users personalise more in its new iOS.

Brands also need to cater for people’s increased desire to be more expressive – as demonstrated by the rise of social emojis, stickers and other ways to add personal touches to how they share or express themselves. Think of your brand as an invitation to join your values and purpose and provide your employees and your customers with a toolkit to help them join you.

Navigating the new brand experience world

Once, the establishment said the earth was flat. But early pioneers redrew the map and profited from their findings. In the same way, those that today challenge yesterday’s received brand marketing wisdom around experience and the customer journey – businesses that lead rather than simply follow – have much to gain as they steer their course in the new consumer world.

This article is written by Wayne Deakin, global principal for design at Wolff Olins.

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