Are brand and experience the same thing?

Hamish Stewart, national executive creative director - experience at CHEP Network, unpacks whether the popularisation of the term ‘brand experience’ has been the right thing, and whether brand and experience are actually one and the same.

Ten years ago, Harvey Weinstein was known as a brilliant film producer, Louis CK was known as a loveable comedian, and Kevin Spacey was a celebrated actor. But as people who actually knew them started to share stories of their real behaviour, each of their careers crumbled, to differing degrees.

What people are known for in the minds of the public is often very different to the day-to-day experience of those who spend time with them.

True or not, it was often said that people loved Kevin Rudd ’til they met him and disliked Tony Abbott ’til they met him. The reputation, apparently, didn’t match the experience.

Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott

Entire corners of the internet are devoted to ‘Celebrities IRL’, as everyday people ask each other of their encounters with stars: “What are they really like?”

This distinction, between reputation and reality, is just as true for companies, products and services.

Back in the 1980s, Decoré shampoo became famous for its De-de-de-Decoré ads, re-recording the 1962 pop song, Duke of Earl, and reportedly people rushed to stores to buy it.

But as a Fin Review article puts it: “The product was not living up to the promise made in the advertising campaign. Repeat purchases of Decoré were low because people who bought and used the product for the first time were disappointed with its performance.”

In other words, there was a gap between the brand and the experience.

If we think of a brand as the reputation of a company, product or service – the sum of thoughts, feelings and associations – then people’s direct experience is naturally an aspect of that – an influence or subset. The experience informs the brand.

But more and more we hear that brand and experience are the same thing. It’s often said that ‘brand is experience and experience is brand’ or, in an attempt to reconcile the two, they’re mashed together as ‘brand experience’.

But are these useful ways to consider a brand? And is there a distinction?

The term ‘experience’ came from disciplines like customer experience and user experience, both of which arose out of direct and digital marketing. In many ways, CX was an evolution of direct marketing, taking into account the complexity of the modern marketing landscape.

But as direct marketing was rebadged as customer experience, a crucial word was left behind: direct. A more useful, clarifying way to think about ‘experience’, in my view, is as ‘direct experience’. In other words, people’s immediate, real-world experience of a company, product, service – or, for that matter, movie mogul.

It’s the difference between hearing on Instagram that the Fyre Festival will be the coolest event on the planet and being there, seeing it with your own eyes, and discovering it was more like Lord of the Flies, with inadequate food, accommodation and sanitation.

Fyre Festival expectation vs reality

It’s the difference between thinking of Louis CK as one of the hottest comedians in the world and discovering that he had a penchant for exposing himself and urinating on pot plants.

And it’s the difference between a company saying they’re ‘all about you’ and discovering a poorly designed app, a slow, clunky website or being left on hold for 45 minutes.

So brand and experience aren’t the same, but they are symbiotic, because as stories of people’s direct experience are shared, they naturally affect the reputation.

Of course, it works the other way, too – the brand affects the experience. The mere fact of someone’s fame or power or reputation will colour how individuals experience them.

The fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes endures because of this truth. His status as an emperor, a powerful brand, affected people’s direct experience, leading them to deny their own eyes, believing he was clothed.

A Vice writer played on this fact in 2017, creating a fake restaurant with fake reviews, and managing to get critics to believe the story so much that it was named London’s #1 restaurant.

Rita Hayworth, one of the biggest Hollywood stars of the 1940s and a WWII pinup, experienced this first-hand. In 1946, she played the role of Gilda, a femme fatale, and lamented that it coloured how people saw her. “Men went to bed with Gilda,” she quipped, “and they woke up with me.”

“Brands can be thought of as tinted eyeglasses through which consumers view products,” says the Harvard Business Review. “They shape and colour how consumers understand, experience, and value them”.

Those tinted eyeglasses make us believe that the emperor is, in fact, wearing clothes, and that the person, Rita Hayworth, is actually the femme fatale, Gilda.

Of course, that’s why we invest in brands in the first place. It’s what took New Balance from being a shoe for daggy dads to a $5 billion brand over the past ten years. As one analyst said, “The view of the New Balance brand today is drastically different than what it was 10 years ago.” Those rose-coloured glasses at work.

New Balance ad from 2019

So the brand affects the experience, and the experience affects the brand, but they are distinct.

The term ‘brand experience’, though, is an attempt to reconcile the two, an acknowledgement that the brand perception is informed not just by the traditional levers of brand advertising – TV, radio, out of home, display, and so on – but the entire ecosystem – the call centre, the app, the email, the website, the interactive screen, the staff member. In other words, a customer’s direct and indirect experience.

Getting that right, of course, is not easy. It’s the hard work of aligning what we say with what we do, reputation with reality, day in and day out, which is a challenge for all of us, whether we’re an individual or an organisation.

Hamish Stewart is national executive creative director – experience at CHEP Network.


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