From the Information Age to the Age of Experience - how should you respond?

“Never make predictions; especially about the future”

Casey Stengel, one-time manager of the New York Yankees baseball team offered many a wise word including this judgement on predicting the future. But we are all creatures of habit, particularly in the world of business; and so, at the start of the year, commentators like to predict what might happen over the next 12 months.

One of the most consistent themes of the latest crop of ‘crystal-ball’ reports is the acknowledgement that customer experience is now firmly established as a strategic priority in most businesses. CX is no longer an adjunct of operations, a ‘poor cousin’ to marketing. It has become the battleground on which a majority of players have realised they need to compete in the coming decades. We have moved from an Age of Consumerism (which spanned the 60s, 70s and 80s) through the Information Age (when many of today’s most valuable global brands matured) to the dawning of an Age of Experience (when customer experience will become the key differentiator for brands).

The Age of Consumerism

The age of consumerism was shaped by a generation (and their children) who had lived through the shortages of the war years. The succeeding decades of stability and economic growth meant that the 'baby boomers' were able to buy their first house, car, fridge, TV set. The UK consumer became intent on acquiring ‘stuff’. In 1948 only two percent of households in Britain owned a fridge; forty years later ownership was almost universal. By 1990 one in 5 UK households owned 2 or more cars; and by the year 2000 UK households owned an average of 2.14 TV sets. Attention switched from buying items never before owned to replacing old models for newer versions. For brands the focus throughout this period was on manufacturing products that were better or cheaper (or both).

The Information Age

By the 1990s the age of consumerism was being overtaken by a new phenomenon - the Information Age. The World Wide Web (and devices used to access it) are now such a part of our daily lives that it’s easy to forget how new they are. Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first web browser computer programme in 1990 while employed at CERN in Switzerland. In the 1990s the number of websites grew from 1 (August 1991) to just over 3 million by 1999. By 2015 the world had 863m active websites and the way businesses operated had changed irrevocably. Products and prices could be compared at the swipe of a finger; shops rendered unnecessary and mainstream media displaced by social media and ‘post-truth’ journalism. More importantly the Information Age gave birth to truly global brands. In 2016 Forbes was able to rank 4 global technology/information brands in the top 5 of its list of the world's most valuable brands. Two of these brands, Google and Facebook, were less than 20 years old. (Apple, Microsoft and Coca Cola were the other three).

The Age of Experience

In two generations we have moved from the austerity of the post-war years to a society where many of us own all we need and have instant access to the ‘world’s information’. What we now seek is authenticity – in terms of experiences (holidays to far-flung places) and relationships. Nielsen's annual study on Global Trust in advertising showed that, in Europe, we are significantly more likely to trust what our friends say about the brands we buy than what those brands themselves say. For brands who want a strong relationship with their customers building on a strong product, price or positioning option is no longer an option. Successful brand relationships will be forged in the experiences the brand has to offer and the quality of service they provide for their customers.

Over the course of the next few weeks I’ll be exploring in more detail why customer experience has displaced the traditional ‘P’s of marketing and what are the fundamentals of a differentiated customer experience. Among other things I'll be considering:

  • How even those brands with genuine product differentiation are building their offer out to embrace customer experience.
  • Why brands built on the back of a reputation for technological development or corporate social responsibility can, overnight, fall victim to circumstance.
  • The extent to which brands' investment in broadcast messaging has been undermined by the rise of social media.
  • Why building a truly differentiated customer experience is so difficult
  • How technology is opening up new opportunities for delivering service
  • What are the essential ingredients to a successful customer experience.

As ever the views expressed are personal and intended to spark reaction and debate. I'm always interested to hear from those who disagree with me or explore aspects of the debate that I may have missed.

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