Obsessing the Brand Experience

5 Takeaways from the Now / Next / Why Conference Cohosted by BSSP and Contagious Communications


By Ed Cotton

On June 9th, over 150 people gathered at the Golden Gate Club in San Francisco to learn, be inspired and share their own thinking on the theme of Obsessing Experience at the Now / Next / Why conference, cohosted by Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners (BSSP) and Contagious Communications.

BSSP chose to partner with Contagious because the London-based company has spent the past decade keeping their finger on the pulse of new and emerging forms of communication, understanding not only who is doing what, but also why it matters.

The Obsessing Experience theme was selected because it’s clear that digital technology is transforming consumption habits and giving rise to new behaviors (Nielsen just reported app usage has increased 63% in two years) and ways to interact with brands, while also creating new competitors who are elevating experiences and expectations.

These technologies offer brands the chance to form one-to-one relationships with customers in ways unimaginable a few years ago. It’s not just about the digital side, however. Brands are also thinking hard about the totality of the experience in other channels and how it can be improved. Keeping customers happy, both across the journey and post-purchase, has become an increasingly important consideration for brands.

Among the eclectic group of presenters helping us learn about, and from, the world of obsessive experiences were expert analysts from Contagious, Tom Raith of IDEO (design thinkers), Anna Pickard of Slack (transforming workplace communication), Doug Ziewacz of Under Armour (taking on Nike, Adidas and Silicon Valley), Derrick Lewis of Rapha (upscale cycling gear and experiences), Ben Jones of Google (art, copy, code — aka reinventing advertising), Tom Marchant of Black Tomato (reinventing luxury travel) and author/experience consultant Matt Watkinson.

Beyond the speaking and presentations, all attendees got the chance to put their newly acquired knowledge to good use for a cause. Tenderloin HIP, whose mission is to restore the Tenderloin to a healthy state, gave conference attendees the task of thinking about how to make the experience in the Tenderloin terrible for drug dealers.

During the course of the day, five particularly notable things emerged from the conversation that could help brands when they think about developing obsessive experiences.

  1. Know Your Strategic Fundamentals (Who You Are, Who Your User Is, and What the Journey Is)

In an increasingly complicated world, with more channels than ever and more requirements for content, you need a map. This means understanding who you are and why you exist for customers.

Beyond the fundamentals of brand architecture and user understanding, being able to objectively and methodically lay out the customer journey is now also becoming an important strategic imperative.

2. Brands Need Both Attention and Experience

One of the challenges for brand marketers and agencies appears to be the need to deliver both attention and experiences. In a world where consumers are obsessed with smartphones, brands need to find increasingly clever and imaginative ways to tell their stories and grab people’s attention. We also inhabit a world where apps bring us things at the touch of a button, and therefore, expectations of experience are constantly being raised.

It’s clear there are two disciplines in play here: one that’s about finding new and interesting ways to tell stories, and the other that’s about designing and finessing experiences based on understanding users.

With both attention and experience, finding unique ways to deliver these with obsession depends on a unique combination of technological, cultural and brand understanding.

3. How Do You Balance Digital and Human?

With the world in the cloud and the ability to develop algorithms for everything, customers’ lives can be made much easier by self-service and automation. While there was widespread recognition and head nodding from the audience, there was an understanding that there’s nothing that can beat human interaction.

So while the temptation might be to remove humans from the process (just think of the cost savings!), brands probably need to evaluate what they might be giving up in doing so.

4. Small Things Can Make a Big Difference

Sometimes the breadth and depth of a customer journey can appear daunting, like it’s just too much to take on and attack.
However, it’s often the small things that can make the biggest difference of all.

If you can identify the parts of the journey and experience that really matter to people, or do something that’s unexpected in a digital world (like write a handwritten letter), your small action will be noticed and people will respond.

5. Is Experience Falling Between Corporate Silos?

Experience is obviously everyone’s responsibility, but there’s often no single person, no champion, who’s accountable for it, because it’s simply too vast and crosses so many disciplines. So, the problem for experience could be that it’s falling between the corporate silos.

That’s why we have the “back of the deck” problem, which Tom Raith of IDEO identified. Clients are used to buying advertising and know what to look for, but that’s tougher with experiences, because they’re often beyond the limits of budget and personal responsibility.

Certainly agencies could do better by finding ways to prioritize and identify their “back of the deck” ideas, perhaps by embracing an approach such as the following.

  1. Determine the potential value to brand and business — find the ideas with the greatest impact.

2. Find the ideas that are going to have the greatest impact on the brand’s attention and experience.

3. Map them back to the most important parts of the customer journey.

4. Define what they deliver. Are they about keeping customers more loyal, bringing more customers into the brand, or applying a different way to gain attention and amplify awareness?

Finally, to summarize, the day provided some real context around the idea that brand experiences matter more than ever. However, it also reminded us that while it’s easy to drown in the hype surrounding the supposed complexity of the digital age, often, as the conference proved, the best solutions are the smallest and the most human, and the first place to start is always by asking yourself some very basic and straightforward questions.

So, if you erase from your mind buzzwords like “disruption” and “digital transformation” and instead think about improving the customer’s experience, it suddenly all becomes less daunting and more possible.

About BSSP

Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners is a full-service marketing communications agency, named “Best Small Agency of the Decade” by Adweek. Learn more at bssp.com.