What Is An ‘Experience’?


This column was written by Toby Southgate, CEO UK & Ireland at The Brand Union, a WPP-owned brand strategy and design consultancy. Toby feels that ‘experience’ is an over-used buzzword and that the meaning of it has been diluted with time. He argues what it should truly convey for the marketer.

Marketing speak. Non-stop buzzwords and ‘bullshit bingo’, right? We’ve all heard the jokes. But as the industry and marketing strategies constantly morph and evolve, language needs to be invented and created (and reinvented, and re-created) all the time. Sometimes meanings get diluted beyond the point of all recognition: ‘integrated’, ‘digital’, ‘engagement’, ‘social’, ‘content’, blah blah blah.

These are now umbrella terms that serve generic purposes. They tick a box rather than offer definition.

‘Experience’ is one of the more recent additions to marketing vocabulary, and it’s the frame through which we now talk about brands. Relationships between brands and consumers have changed exponentially, and the way in which brands interact with people is crucial to sustainability and profitability in the 21st century. But what do we mean by experience? And why do we think it’s the best way to evaluate brands from here on out?

Here’s the why: Experiences form the basis of all types of human relationships. With people, environments, brands, our employers, our banks, the football teams we follow. Our view on the world is entirely shaped by the personal positive and negative experiences we encounter throughout our life. The more experiences we have, the broader, stronger and better informed our opinions.

The Oxford English Dictionary would agree too, defining ‘experience’ as:

1: practical contact with and observation of facts or events

2: an event or occurrence, which leaves an impression on someone

But at this level, it’s still a little too obvious to be deemed a fundamental truth of marketing. If we dive into the relationships between people and brands that engage them, we can build a view on defining those specific experiences that drive brand recognition and loyalty. What would we specifically define as an experience with a brand?

A visit to a retail store; a transaction at your bank; a lengthy phone call to customer service; the welcome at a hotel reception desk on check-in. These are the interactions that determine customer satisfaction, but don’t individually create the experience of the brand. Customer satisfaction is short-term sentiment directly linked to specific, individual interactions. The overarching experience of the brand is a collation of each moment of interaction between the brand and the consumer, every single touch point.

So you can begin to see where the definition has become diluted. Ad agencies would tell you that an experience is a thirty second TVC or a bus side; experiential agencies that it’s an event; social media specialists that it’s your Twitter feed. But real experiences cross genre and channel and defy blinkered assessments. Strong brands are aware that every single moment of interaction is a chance to build and to influence the way people feel.

An interesting consideration borrows from a neuro-psychological approach, that it’s in fact a consumer’s peripheral vision that is the most significant in brand perception. Overt messaging and experiences will resonate, but it’s the more subtle, seemingly inconsequential touch points that contribute to lasting perception. Whether it be an overheard conversation, a billboard seen at a football match on TV, or reference in a news article, it doesn’t need to contain a particular tactical message. Rather it’s a signal that contributes to the formed opinion. It’s one puzzle piece added to another, all contributing to the experience of the brand.

The most successful brands make a lasting imprint on a person as a result of continual, positive moments of interaction, regardless of size or context. It is these micro experiences that drive satisfaction, loyalty and emotional attachment. It’s about brands integrating into people’s lifestyles, engaging rather than interrupting – and to do this, brands need to be fully cognizant of every moment of interaction.

Brands of all colors are now being constantly challenged, scrutinized, and held to account.

Expectations are higher, news flows faster, and the demand for transparency, authenticity and loyalty is ever more precious. To succeed in the future brands have to re-evaluate the way they see themselves. Put yourself in the shoes of the user, and a brand can start to truly understand and define its own experience.