There is far more to the Web than “just” being the Web. Indeed, the Web is only one component of a ubiquitous network of communication, interaction and information. While each of us are tacitly aware of the bigger picture, we often do not truly recognize and understand how it all fits together, or just what the Web means to business. This is particularly important for those of us who are involved in Web design and development. While we might seem to be hotshots in the work we do on the Web, we will ultimately be doing a disservice to our employers or clients if we are not working fluidly as part of the larger operating dynamics.
The good news is that most people involved in our industry—whether Web professionals or business people or marketing folks—do not truly understand the larger dynamic. So instead of being behind in how we think and operate we actually have the opportunity to move ahead of our peers and gain a meaningful advantage. In order to do that we need to understand more about business today and where it is headed tomorrow. Central to that is an understanding of Brand Experience.
How business is changing
The very nature of business has changed more in the last 15 years than in the 50 years prior. That is due to a few different factors, one of which is the rise of the Internet. The ubiquitous access to data and information, instant international communication, and the replacement of human tasks with digital processes has revolutionized where business is going. As a result, business is moving faster, the markets available to each business are significantly larger, and the world in general is dramatically smaller and shrinking more every day. This allows for connections, strategies and tactics that were not previously possible.
Another vital business trend is the move toward globalization. Spurred by the Internet and the natural by-product of mature, late-stage capitalist market conditions, globalization is the logical next step for business success. One of the most overt byproducts of globalization is the replacement of local, privately-owned companies with international, publicly-owned superpowers. McDonald‘s has been successfully global for decades; in the early 1990s we watched as Wal-Mart spread its corporate wings and accelerated the demise of thousands of general stores. In the late 1990s we marveled as Starbucks completely re-defined a product category: what people used to pay only 50 cents for in unlimited quantity, they would now pay more than $2 for in only the smallest portion—and in the process landed on the street corner of most towns in the United States. These icons are representative examples of what is happening across the business continuum: more markets are being dominated by “super brands.”
More than replacing small local businesses with “super brands,” the move to globalization has a cascading effect on how business is done: recent trends toward offshoring are a direct product of globalization; the spiraling commoditization of all but the most complicated technical and intelligence tasks is another.
The sand that we are standing on is shifting—rapidly—and we need to get our feet steady in order to understand the operating dynamics.
Sophisticated markets, discriminating customers
One of the primary results of the changing face of business is a dramatic increase in the level of market sophistication. Unlike 50 years ago—when many companies were ultimately unsophisticated and able to stumble into fertile market opportunities that had not been identified by others—today, most companies have read the right books, attended the right seminars and properly understand not only the business basics but their specific industry dynamics, as well.
Ultimately, we are the winners here. As consumers, we are being treated to products and services that increasingly address our unique needs and desires. And, in the process, we are becoming more selective. We are less tolerant of products and services that are not reflective of our preferences. Thanks to free and easy access to information, we are much less likely to make purchases we would not be satisfied with. More than ever we expect experiences to work the way we want them to. Of course, these factors have direct implications on Web design, as well, but they represent the very fabric of why Brand Experience is so important.
Understanding Brand Experience
The easiest way to understand Brand Experience is first to understand the component parts:
Brand represents the intellectual and emotional associations that people make with a company, product or person. That is to say, brand is something that actually lies inside each of us. It is our subjective understanding of something, be it a company (Nike), a product (Corn Flakes) or even a person (Michael Jordan). While the word brand is often used more generally and in a qualitative way (“Nike is a really strong brand”), the essence of the brand lies in each of our unique, subjective interpretations, in our understanding of the brand—which is guided by cultural context, interactions we‘ve had with and about what we are evaluating, and our own personal conception of the world. The more closely aligned a company or product is with the needs and desires of customers, the more likely that company is to maintain a strong and positive mental image in their customers‘ minds, customers who can then be moved to take productive action: to buy, to engage, to recommend, or to think. The science of branding is about designing for and influencing the minds of people—in other words, building the brand.
Experience is anything that our senses perceive, the interaction between people and the world. What is valuable about experience is—like brand—it actually happens on the inside. How and why people respond to experiences is at the heart of successful design. And that is what designing for, or focusing on, experience is all about: understanding people. And the same basic principles apply whether someone is reading information or going to a trade show booth or watching a commercial or engaging a Web site. Even as the media changes, the basic human realities of evaluating and responding to experiences remain the same.
Brand Experience is the strategic approach to compelling people to take productive action through the integrated, coordinated planning and execution of every possible interaction that they have with your company or products. That means assessing business strategy through the lens of providing people with carefully designed experiences that meet their needs and desires, with the explicit intention of compelling them to take productive action on your behalf.
Brand Experience—in its totality—is a rather new discipline, and one that is incredibly complex to execute successfully. Not only does it require a sophisticated understanding of business strategy and a deep, scientific and cultural understanding of people and markets, it also demands a broad—and neutral—understanding of communications and media. It is, at once, the synthesis of business, marketing, design and technology.
And the Web is a vital component to Brand Experience.
The Web and Brand Experience
First things first: the Web has inherent limitations in the degree to which it can contribute to a successful Brand Experience. For all intents and purposes it is a medium that directly affects only two different senses, visual and auditory. The most powerful experiences touch all five senses, not just those two. Also, most people typically use the Web in the course of multi-tasking. People experiencing companies and products on the Web are often devoting only a fraction of their available mindshare to that experience, unlike other experiences that are more immersive.
However, the Web also has a number of advantages over other media. It is one of a very few experiences that are “pull” instead of “push”; people can request what they want, when they want it, largely at any time they want. The Web is also an incredibly interactive medium, enabling people not only to get information but to play games for entertainment, to complete surveys that reflect their preferences and to communicate in real time. Being involved and comfortable with the Web, we might take these things for granted, but they represent revolutionary change compared to the interactions we grew up with.
Before the Web, unless we were in an actual store or facility, most of the experiences we had with companies and products were decidedly one-way. Advertisements, created for very broadly defined demographics, screamed at us or sang to us or tried to seduce us with sounds and images that blindly spoke to the lowest common denominator. While some problems with products or services could be taken care of with a phone call, just as often resolution would require sending a letter via ordinary mail in order to get redress—a notion that seems quaint today.
It is not that many of the experiences and communication channels that were dominant in the past no longer exist today; rather, digital technology now provides other interactions and tools that complement or enhance the experience we can offer. This distinction is important because we need to understand that the Web is just one part of Brand Experience—it needs to be approached thoughtfully, as a voice among the chorus, not an end unto itself.
As Web professionals we have a real advantage over many other people who are engaged in the Brand Experience space: we are the experts of the shiniest new toy, which also happens to have the greatest upside. Many people with more “traditional” backgrounds, like print design or marketing or general business, do not have a comfort level with the Web. Very few people understand it. Some are even afraid of it. And while there is a lot written about the “how to” nuts-and-bolts of building for the Web, there is precious little scholarship on the strategy of the Web, or how it can be leveraged for the greatest possible business gain. Therefore, not only do many people not yet grasp the implications of Brand Experience, they also have real gaps in how they understand the most progressive and powerful new tool in the toolbox. And whereas best practices and approaches in marketing are well-defined, and can easily be learned by anyone with the time and inclination, that is not the case with the new and uncertain terrain of the Web. Indeed, the Web provides a fertile opportunity for innovation and definition. If we understand the Web, and understand Brand Experience, we can propel our careers forward and help our employers and clients become much more profitable in the process.
On July 16th I gave a presentation at WebVisions 2004 on the topic of Brand Experience and the Web. That presentation briefly summarized the content in this article and then introduced a variety of direct, tactical approaches which transformed a basic understanding of Brand Experience into practical growth and success. That presentation is avilable as an accompaniment and conclusion to this article. You can download the presentation here.