Disconnection between customer experience and brand is killing organisations.

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For a significant portion of the past decade, customer experience has been signalled as a silver bullet for organisations. A resolution for ailing shareholder value and Net Promoter Score, endorsed by market data — experience-led companies outperformed the S&P 500, 22% of Fortune 100 companies have C-suite customer officers compared to 6% of the Fortune 1000, 81% of marketers told they competed mostly or completely on the basis of customer experience.

More compelling still is the narrative of so-named legacy companies which successfully transformed. Domino’s Pizza is one of the best examples. In 2007, Domino’s was the first company of its kind to introduce online ordering. In 2008, online order tracking was launched. In 2010, J. Patrick Doyle joined as CEO and led an 8-year run of experience innovation including voice ordering in 2014, a loyalty programme in 2015 and launch of the ‘AnyWare’ platform in 2016 which enabled orders from Twitter, Facebook Messenger, smart watches and smart TV’s. A modern-day commitment to the path of least effort which has been part of Domino’s DNA since their 1973 innovation of the ’30 minute guarantee.’

The result saw a 9000% increase in share price — from $3 in 2008 to north of $270 earlier this year — alongside a doubling of market share and 30 straight quarters of growth. Doyle’s tenure is a case study of the disproportionate returns of digital transformation.

In the 2020’s, we may find ourselves in a prison of our own design.

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Today, progressive C-suite need ask if the approach prompted by analysts and legacy success is still the silver bullet, or one that has the potential to turn dangerously myopic.

In 2019, a Forrester report titled ‘The Cost of Losing Creativity’ — a survey of 100,000 customers and 300 major brands — stated “customer experience has become homogenised, technology is now table stakes as customers can no longer distinguish one experience from another … every CMO at every company feels mounting pressure to differentiate their brand now that their go-to playbook for performance has run its course.”

If trend report sensationalism is a concern, evidence of ‘experience fatigue’ is not hard to find elsewhere.

Even with the most minor of interruptions to immediacy (in this case, surge usage due to disruption of public transport or bad weather) it is not uncommon behaviour for Londoners to open all of these mobility apps, each near-identical in design and operation, tap ‘find a taxi’ and the fastest wins their trade.

Being at the mercy of experience fatigue means to actively encourage engagement that is primarily transactional with little or no loyalty being assigned to the entity as whole. It is an approach that places businesses into an extraordinarily competitive model to sustain — one often financed by short-term and acquisition-hopeful venture capital or diminishing shareholder value. ‘Fastest wins’ is the new ‘sort by price.’ If there is a race to the bottom in customer experience, the ruling cause is product and service design that is disconnected from the presentation and evolution of the brand.

This disconnection places two unnecessary stresses on the organisation.

1. Fatigue

Humans hunt for deviation. The academic research on this is robust, starting with Hedwig von Restorff’s 1933 study on the “isolation effect.” What is distinctive among a ‘normal’ information set is more memorable. The worlds of marketing and branding know this well, even if not always acting on it: for the attraction of attention, identify fatigue and formula in the category and subvert them.

The tension between brand and digital products and services here is clear. The practice of developing customer experience has come to retreat from, or in some circumstances outright oppose, deviation. Services are designed to match ‘normal’ and earned behaviour to reduce the need for education. Introducing a radical outlier in marketing makes the event more memorable, however when applied to a method of interaction and it can translate quickly into hard-to-use. So, customer experience slavishly follows the category it resides within and the result is a considered form of mimicry. Back to homogenous, back to ‘fastest wins’.

It is time to question if customer experience has leaned too far in the direction of utility. And if it too readily expects the burden of distinctiveness to lie solely with the activities of the brand.

Experience design needs to take cues from these activities, connect them and add more depth to them. The anthem of the first stewards of digital products and services was “the interface is the brand.” I joined at the chorus. A decade later, what happens when interfaces look the same, behave the same way and operate at the same speed?

Customer experience must find a form of variation in its presentation so ease-of-use isn’t the only currency it trades in. By example, the brand world knows how to apply narrative structure so things can be retold. It knows how to present itself precisely, uniquely, to certain tribes of people so as to build a sense of belonging. Successful products and services in this decade require the same process of thought. But only if conducted in unison, otherwise it leads quickly to the second stress.

2. Incoherence

A principle driver of share price is lifetime value of the customer. We know the evidence. A 2% increase in customer retention has the same effect on profits as cutting costs by 10% and it requires 5x more investment to acquire new customers compared to keeping existing ones.

For any long-term engagement to occur, an individual is required to make thousands of small decisions to allow a product or brand into their lives. A process made notably more difficult when the customer struggles to identify what they are interacting with, or more specifically, when they are presented with inconsistent expressions of the company.

Organisations need to critically evaluate if the brand, however old or new, right at the foundational level, is built to withstand and thrive in executions of digital products and services. Sounds far from revelatory, yet decidedly rare. Ask if the core visual artefacts of the brand are mindfully constructed to support digital design systems. Ask if the tone of voice has been written to suit conversational interfaces so it can still be recognisable when expressions of it are automated. If these activities are absent, or worse, led by different people hiring different agencies over different decades, urgent work is to be done.

Incoherence is equally a symptom of the data that is lost in disconnection. The brand world so far has not been particularly computational. It is measured in spontaneous recall, or if something exceptional or catastrophic happens, changes are reflected in market capitalisation. Generally speaking, the instrumentation is slow. The product world is fast. It can inform daily, hourly, on customer behaviour, perception, context and expectation. If there is a gap of any noticeable size and product and service data isn’t being passed back to the brand, the organisation is rarely acting while well-informed and the elegy is being written.

Both the challenge and cause of disconnection is reflected in a typical customer loop.

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Left loop is the buying process. Right loop is the customer experience. It would be fair to say that the left loop has historically had reign over the presentation and evolution of the brand. It would also be fair to say that to ‘convert’ today means to draw customers into a loop which is driven predominantly by product activity. Ecosystems of digital services; Nike+, Apple ID, Amazon Prime. If, over time, the right loop promotes loyalty, it spins again and competitor brands will find it prohibitively expensive to pull customers out of it.

The main cause of disconnection between brand and customer experience is the diffusion of responsibility between these loops.

Survey the Fortune 500 to ask who is responsible for either the brand (residing today mostly in the left loop) or the customer experience (right loop), and there will be two responses: “everyone” or “department A and department B.” Both are unhelpful. Either way, we are left with fragmentation of vision, different metrics for success, competing expenditure with low yield. To compound the challenge, the diffusion of responsibility is mirrored in the ongoing subdivision of agency and consultancy partners: specialist brand, specialist marketing, specialist experience design and specialist technology.

Expressions of customer experience and brand have been separated for too long and the gap has widened over time.

It’s hard to see the division as intentional. Their value is co-dependant. If the value of one goes up, so does the value of the other. A great customer experience has the power to lift the value of the brand. A great brand has the power to lift the value of a product. Bad products kill great brands. Bad brands kill great products.

Whether this should be referred to as the next stage of business transformation or otherwise, in 2020 onwards, success will be driven by an organisation’s ability to invest in and evolve the entire surface area of this loop holistically. They will need an agency partner who can tackle both sides, or a group of specialist agencies led by people who understand the whole loop if operating at the holding company level.

If proof is needed, either of the potential impact or whether the approach is achievable, where people have eulogised Domino’s digital transformation, fewer have drawn attention to its organisational view. To quote Dennis Maloney, Chief Digital Officer of Domino’s Pizza from a 2018 interview: “Our marketing and IT groups actually work together, better than any other two departments in our company. We win together, we fail together.” Silver bullet in chamber two.

Ian Wharton is VP, Executive Creative Director at Publicis Sapient London and the author of Spark for the Fire: How Youthful Thinking Unlocks Creativity.

We bridge business strategy and scaled engineering with dataful experiences. https://publicissapient.com/experience

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