Wednesday, April 6, 2011

the brand experience

Brands, beware. Consumers are learning. Thanks to the rise of the digital age, an exponentially increasing level of data is available to consumers. As a result, they are more knowledgeable about their purchase and demand more from brands than ever before. The digital age has tipped the market in favor of consumers.

This has created a consumer culture based around “brand experience,” especially for younger consumers more accustomed to a full, “360-degree” brand package. One company that has mastered the art of the brand experience is coffee titan Starbucks, who less than five years ago was trying to get a hold on falling stock prices and nationwide store closures. Much of the success for Starbucks’ brand rejuvenation can be credited to Chief Marketing Officer Annie Young-Scrivner. Young-Scrivner, who joined Starbucks in September 2009, retooled the company’s marketing efforts to align the brand with its once youthful and innovative image.

"If there was knock on Starbucks, it's that they lost their cool factor,” Stifel Nicolaus, Vice President and analyst Steve West recently told DMNews. "What I have seen them do a lot more of is really connect with the consumer through social media and with loyalty cards.” West believes by reaching out to what he calls the “Apple or the Facebook digital generation,” Starbucks will be able to recapture its mojo.

In December 2009, Starbucks launched their “My Starbucks Rewards” program and enabled customers to “reload” their cards online. The rewards program is also reinforced with postal and email marketing announcements. In May 2010, Starbucks launched the sleek and highly interactive in coordination with the “Frappuccino Happy Hour” promotion. In July 2010, they began hosting free WiFi connections. And, in January of this year, Starbucks announced a mobile payment system where customers could make in-store purchases using applications on select smartphones.

Each one of these programs has a unique benefit to the brand. The rewards program creates loyalty. The multi-channel marketing generates sales. The interactive project site launched a new product. The free WiFi improves consumer relations. The mobile payment system increases the speed of transactions. Yet, all of these programs feed into the Starbucks brand experience, one that has been masterfully re-crafted to reflect the innovative, youthful brand that many thought Starbucks had lost in its meteoric growth.

Starbucks is coffee, but its brand is more than that. It’s the Starbucks experience. It’s what sets it apart from other coffee chains, and why people are willing to pay $4.00 for a drip coffee. And, the brand saw what happened when it forgot what made it Starbucks.

Other brands should look to Starbucks as a model for how every detail of its brand plays into a larger concept of the brand experience. Starbucks wanted to portray a savvy image and regain the “cool” factor, so it aligned its brand signals to reflect this image. For brands that want to project a particular idea, they should look to every detail to ensure they are in line with promoting that idea. Otherwise, the brand experience will be inconsistent and flawed and consumers will take notice.

For example, if a brand wanted to project an image of “quality,” it will ensure that not only is its manufacturing process designed to maximize durability, but that it has a customer service department that quickly resolves any issue relating to defects or under-performance. Every detail of the brand should be aligned to reinforce the total brand experience of “quality.” This will create brand loyalty among existing customers, and it will generate positive feedback in social media and online reviews, which can lead to new customers.

Today’s consumers love to share their interactions with brands. It’s why sites like Angie’s List have become so popular. And, it’s why any Google Map search yields results for businesses with consumer reviews pulled from sources like Yelp, Zagat, and Yahoo. If consumers are talking — and, they most definitely are — it’s important that they only have good things to say about your brand. That’s why the total brand experience is so crucial.

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