Why what brands do is more important than what they say

Prototyping the hotel guest experience (space, digital, service behaviours and F&B)

One rainy afternoon in early 2013, in a Chicago suburb, I was interviewing Ram, an avid user of our client’s hotels, as part of a project to redesign their guest experience. “A good hotel experience is one that I don’t remember,” he explained. Ram wanted the experience to be efficient but, importantly, “stay out of his way”. We met many guests like Ram, who we nicknamed “Headsdown Ghosts”.

As I left, Ram offered to order me a taxi. “This is my favourite ever app”, he enthused. “Why can’t all my travel be like Uber? It’s super smart, I’m driving it and you don’t have the hassle of dealing with anybody.”

Since then I’ve heard similar sentiments many times: customers are transferring functional and emotional expectations from one category to another. Digital services like Uber, Spotify, Amazon and Google teach us to feel more in control and empowered.

Previously, strict delineations between, say, business and leisure, or travel and home meant those expectations were siloed within categories. People compared — say — hotels to each other. No longer: our lives are blended, and digitally-mediated, which mean expectations set by the best services bleed across every part of our lives.

The result is the bar’s raised for everyone. People expect all companies to act like Uber: to adapt, and fit seamlessly into their changing lives. Coming back to Ram: Uber had become the benchmark not for car services, but for travel.

In an unforgivingly on-demand, connected world, comparisons between experiences are easy and the barriers to switching from one brand to another are lower. In this context, differentiating the brand’s offer is hard but the need to do it is great, given the risk of commoditisation.

Traditionally, brands have been built through marketing communication. Now, people’s perception of a brand is as likely to be formed by Facebook comments, or TripAdvisor reviews about a brand’s product, staff, or services.

Connecting Brand To Experience

In response, organisations need to think creatively about how to deliver on their brand’s purpose. That is, they need to understand their role in people’s lives, and the part that every touchpoint plays in matching that.

Often however, the way large organisations develop brand experienced is linear, siloed, and disconnected. The process of defining the brand role/purpose (what it exists to do) lives in a Powerpoint deck, or is mistranslated in the handover to the space, digital or staff training teams for example, who are developing customer experiences on the ‘shop floor’. When one thinks about it, there’s no logic to detaching the process of designing what a brand is about from the process of designing how people experience it, because how people experience your brand, ‘is’ your brand.

Prototyping The Brand Experience

IDEO’s approach for exploring what a brand means to people, what’s valuable to them, and designing against that holistically, is through prototyping.

For Holiday Inn Express Europe, for example, we built out a full-scale, IKEA-furnished mock-up of the hotel’s new public lobby and guest room in a warehouse outside London, complete with acted-out staff service roles, digital tools, and food and beverage.

Walking real potential guests through that enriched our client’s understanding of their brand role (providing ‘Simple Smart and Spot On’ travel). That red thread translated into touch points including new breakfast options, more thoughtful staff interactions, and a room layout designed to help guests work more productively.

Having potential customers see, touch and interact with the full ecosystem means we can explore what combination of packaging, services, people, digital, and space feels most valuable, but also signature to the brand and underserved by the competition.

Building a Brand’s Future

Lower barriers to entry and fast-developing technologies mean start-ups without legacy constraints — Uber, AirBnB, and Warby Parker, to name just three — are challenging big companies.

Facing that competition, big companies need to innovate more rapidly, better understand people’s changing needs, and achieve better product/market fit, faster.

Building out a mock-up experience lets companies experiment with a future offering in an agile, low risk way. Outside the constraints of corporate politics, departmental silos or risk-averse thinking, it allows them to quickly, cheaply, and effectively explore and test possibilities. What could our brand do? What would our customers really value from us?

This approach doesn’t just apply to experiences with a strong environmental component. Whether it’s a new oral care routine for a toothpaste brand, or using telematic sensor data to create a better city driving experience for a car manufacturer it’s important to get tangible and simulate real usage with users, whatever the category.

For a digital retailer that might span the buying experience on an iPad in a mocked-up sitting room, a role-played call centre interaction, the parcel’s delivery at the door, and the packaging itself, for example.

Building Belief and Collaboration

Creating mock-ups does more than ensure that purpose matches experience details, though.

Moving from abstract brand values in a Powerpoint presentation to a real embodiment of them creates belief and courage in stakeholders across company silos, around a shared view of what’s possible. Seeing, we’ve found, is believing.

Additionally, it helps clients understand what capabilities — staff, training, digital, infrastructure — are needed to deliver that.

It also serves a more practical role: as a platform for collaboration. Food and beverage consultants, human resource staff trainers, architects and IT are able to build and evolve their part of the brand live, while keeping sight of their contribution to the bigger brand picture.

To conclude, people care more than ever about their experience of a brand. Prototyping can help organisations develop valuable, relevant, distinctive, and holistic experiences in a more agile way.