UX is the new branding. And just as marketing and media spending must now be addressed holistically, companies must consider customer experience and increasingly the digital experience as the core of their “brand strategy.”
In the pre-internet heyday of traditional media, brands and their user experiences were largely separate. Corporations carefully controlled brand perception and spent hundreds of millions on developing and grooming their brands. This sometimes made brands impervious or at least resistant to “facts on the ground.”
We then entered the digital era and, with the rise of social media in particular, companies lost control of their brands and reputations — though they’re still spending vast amounts on “branding” and awareness advertising. If there was a major gap between a brand’s image or promise and some real-world experience, that surfaced in online reviews or conversations that were then discoverable via search.
Searches for Company XYZ immediately often yielded consumer opinions within one or two search results of the brand site. Hospitality, restaurants and a few other industries are intimately familiar with this.
One of the big lessons of the past decade is that brand marketing and advertising and post-purchase fulfillment and customer service are now effectively joined at the hip — or should be. However most brands haven’t fully assimilated that lesson with its corresponding organizational and customer service implications.
There’s another wrinkle I’ve been thinking about recently, mostly in a mobile context. That is: how the moment-to-moment user experience builds or destroys brand value. This is a different spin on Google’s “micro moments” concept, which is largely about persuasion and spontaneous purchasing.
While a poor product or terrible customer service will degrade brand equity, so too will a bad mobile web or app experience. Great usability enhances a brand and brand perception (or can help build a brand). An awkward, slow or poorly designed user experience will correspondingly diminish it. Uber is an easy top-of-mind example. Uber raised tons of money but it built its brand entirely around a great mobile user experience — a kind of “ground up” approach.
In a more traditional retail or hospitality context there are many things that contribute to brand perception: selection, pricing, store/hotel experience, customer service and so on. But that brand identity extends into digital, and in many ways, is determined by it.
So when a retailer or hotel brand (e.g., IHG) delivers a weak or substandard user experience, especially on mobile, it degrades brand perception — sometimes very quickly. This point has been made in the past — and I may not be conveying what I’m trying to very well — but there’s an important lesson in here.
Companies that hope to survive, let alone thrive, must invest in digital assets (and service) as though their very existence depended upon it. They must deliver a great customer experience across channels before, during and after purchase. But because digital and mobile in particular are now the center of the customer experience that dictates a radical shift in thinking and attention.
Often companies treat their digital assets as though they’re simply tools or utilities or add-ons or necessary evils. But there’s something more fundamental I’m trying to say. There is no longer any separation between digital experience and brand identity.
Websites and apps aren’t merely tools that enable completion of some task, they are the brand.