The four strategic pillars that help differentiate brands in the Age of Experience

In previous blogs I’ve been exploring how far the relationship between brands and their customers has evolved over the last three decades. In doing so I’ve drawn on my experience of living through an era that has witnessed the greatest change in brand management we have ever seen. When I started my career there was just one commercial TV channel, the internet wasn't even a gleam in the eye of Tim Berners-Lee, there were twice as many bank branches, three times as many bookshops and ‘social media’ meant a pin-board in the pub. Seismic change (fomented by the explosion of new technologies during Information Age) mean that brands must now focus on creating a differentiated and authentic customer experience. People and Processes have overtaken Product, Place and Positioning in the brand manager’s arsenal.

While the mechanics of brand management may have moved on the principles remain the same; and it is these same fundamentals that will guide your People and Processes in delivering a unique customer experience. Brands will succeed because they have: a core ideology; strong leadership; engaged employees; and a customer-centric culture.

Core ideology

A clear purpose and set of values will guide your people and inform your processes. When a brand has a clear sense of what it stands for and what its values are so do all its employees. There exists a common understanding across the organisation of the behaviours that are expected and of the experience that customers should have when they encounter the brand. The purpose and values will shape the kind of products that are developed, the way the company markets itself, the type of people it recruits and, crucially, the service it delivers. All the company’s strategies will be consistently aligned with the purpose and values. In its 2016 report on Human Capital Deloitte's estimates that 84% of the HR and business leaders it interviewed believe that "culture is a potential competitive advantage".

But corporate cultures are not easy to come by. In his 2016 letter to Amazon shareholders Jeff Bezos writes: "A word about corporate cultures: for better or worse they are enduring, stable, hard to change. You can write down your corporate culture when you do so, you're discovering it, uncovering it - not creating it. It is created slowly over time by the people and by events - by the stories of past success and failure that become a deep part of company lore." Bezos is clear that corporate culture is not some shiny wrapper to be applied by an expensive consultancy. His words explain why programmes to overhaul company culture are so seldom successful. Too often culture programmes focus on how executives like to see themselves (innovative, dynamic) rather than the reality of the company (staid, inward-looking) or the characteristics that customers want (reliable, trustworthy). Anyone can dream up a snappy little acronym of five or so buzz words but it's only by acting true to their brand story in everything they do that the likes of First Direct, John Lewis and Amazon successfully deliver a differentiated customer experience.

Strong Leadership

You can have the best blueprint for business in the world but, without effective leadership, it will only ever be a blueprint. The best leaders mix a number of skills and attributes but will demonstrate their ability to be: Visionaries – inspiring the people they work with Interpreters – identifying the role that every employee has to play in delivering the core ideology Coaches – encouraging performance in good times and bad Communicators – with the gift of talking everybody’s language.

In companies that deliver great customer experience, leaders can be found at every level of the organisation. Brands like Amazon and John Lewis - who regularly top the Institute of Customer Service’s (ICS) CSAT index top 50 - practice leadership ‘upwards and downwards’. They have brand guardians throughout the company who are prepared to challenge their managers if they identify a process or experience that is not true to the brand’s core ideology. They have employees who are invested in the brand and daily engaged in delivering the best possible experience.

Engaged employees

At the start of the year the ICS identified 8 trends in customer service for 2017; in at number three was Employee Engagement. The report suggested that “Employee engagement has become both more important to business performance and more challenging to achieve….. the business benefits of employee engagement - discretionary effort, empathy and connection with customers, innovation and new ideas, consistency of performance - are crucial to sustainable success and will become even more so as the next 12 months unfold.” Happy employees are more likely to deliver a good customer experience and create happy customers; happy customers are more likely to be loyal customers; loyal customers are more valuable to your business (they cost less to acquire and tend to buy more). Happy employees are also more likely to stay in their jobs for longer, getting better at what they do and making customers even happier. Deloitte, too, identifies lack of engagement as an issue with only 37 percent of UK organisations believing they understand their culture well and only '21percent' believing they are very ready to change it. Much remains to be done.

Customer-centric people and processes

A differentiated customer experience starts and ends with the customer. I’ve quoted Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, before but he bears repetition: “There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.” Customer centricity is about putting the customer at the heart of your business with the result that: products begin life as a proposition shaped by customer input; positioning is built around a customer perspective; product placement is guided by customer convenience; people and processes are focused on the way your customer behaves and the journeys your customers take when they interact with your brand. In his 2016 letter to Amazon shareholders Jeff Bezos identified the elements that made up the brand’s ‘distinctive organisational culture’. Top of the list was ‘customer obsession rather than competitor obsession’. It’s a tip that many brands, who struggle to create a unique customer experience, would do well to observe.

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