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September 2007

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Creating Memorable Experiences More Critical Than Delivering Excellent Service
By Jeanette McMurtry, MBA

It's no new news that we operate in a world where consumers rule. And I suspect no one will argue that with all the options available for virtually any product or service, and the high expectations for personalized attention and service, consumers' power over brands is getting nothing but stronger. Over the past few years, we've learned to accept that the “customer is always right,” the fact that the “customer is King”, and that you must always “delight the customer.” Today, as retailers experience sluggish sales, and economic uncertainty is looming around every corner, many brands are even more beholden to customers' whims, and desperate to get and keep their business.

Given these factors and many others affecting business, technology and consumer markets, its time to rethink how we engage with customers, and not a moment too soon.

New research from Accenture shows that customers who are satisfied with a vendor's service are far less likely than “extremely satisfied” customers to remain loyal to a brand. And customers that give a brand experience an extremely high satisfaction rating are 2.5 times more likely to repurchase from that brand than customers rating their overall satisfaction as average. Accenture's survey, which focused on high tech consumers, also states that only about 25% of customers experiencing what they rated as “average” service would consider buying from that brand again, and an even lower 19% indicated a likelihood to remain loyal to a brand that delivered only average service.

This is pretty scary news for businesses in all arenas. Even if you have a perfect track record of accuracy, meeting delivery deadlines, product quality, and service with a smile, your customers won't be loyal to you. Apparently, we've moved beyond the era of “delighting” customers, and are now in an era where much more is expected.

Beyond adequate service, consumers today want to be thrilled, to feel a rush of extraordinary satisfaction by getting much more value, attention, or enjoyment than they expected. As kids we thrived on the thrills of our first roller coast ride, our first trip to Disneyland, the thrill of scoring our first soccer goal. As adults, we still seek thrills in both our professional and personal worlds. We want the thrill of getting high response rates to a direct marketing campaign; the thrill of exceeding our sales quotas; of earning that next job promotion in record time. Businesses that understand what excites their customers are those that stand to gain higher levels of customer loyalty, no matter the challenges their markets face.

Research from Cap Gemini Ernst and Young back this up. “Consumers don't differentiate retailers by their value propositions,” yet for years, we marketers have been trying to do just that. Brands don't distinguish themselves by having unique products or service as much as they do by the experience they present.

A memorable experience is one that thrills or excites customers. Thrills result from simple events such as going out of your way to give them what they need when they need it, or showing you care about them as a person, not just a source of revenue.

Think about your own purchasing behavior. When was the last time you were thrilled by a business or retail transaction? What excited you? Was it the place of business, the product itself, the price, or the compelling direct mail piece that kept you up at night until you could respond to it? Chances are, if you're excited about a buying experience for either a professional or personal product, it was the experience more than the actual item purchased that excited you. And when we are excited, we tend to talk about it to anyone who will listen. We talk or create buzz when a salesperson goes out of his or her way to simplify our life; when we got more for our money than we expected, when we were treated like the company's most important customer; when we felt smart, fulfilled, or excited about a purchase we made, or when we experienced something new or extraordinary.

An experience I find myself talking about a lot is my recent visit to an American Girl Place store in New York City. While I expected to see rows of beautiful dolls for sale, which of course I did, I was unprepared for the “experience” offered to both the end users, young girls, and purchasers, mothers. Far beyond offering dolls that represent girls from various eras of American history, American Girl offers young girls an identity and inner strength. Each doll has a story to tell (which is covered in 6 hardback books you can buy), that includes the challenges and trials of being 8 years old at the particular time they represent.. The dolls alone create an experience as they share a perspective of “girl power” and inspiration for personal strength with the young girls.

The physical store, or American Girl Place, of which there are only three in the U.S., creates one of the most brand-bonding experiences I've ever witnessed. I watched in amazement as young girls and their mothers eagerly filed in the store. The girls were dressed in the same outfit as their dolls in many cases. And they weren't here for the shopping, they were here for the experience which included tea parties with their dolls and moms in the most charming tea room I've seen this side of Versailles; for a photo session with their doll; to attend the Theatre that brought to life each doll, their historical era, and their personal triumphs. They were there to take their dolls to the doll hospital, or learn how to give their dolls new hair styles. They were there most importantly to “Follow Their Inner Star,” the company's theme and slogan. Mothers were there for an experience with their daughters they would cherish for lifetime. In fact, I have friends who have traveled to New York or Chicago primarily to go to the American Girl Place (aptly named as it is much more than a store).

Beyond dolls, American Girl provides books and magazines to help young girls cope with challenges of growing up, such as dealing with boys at schools, making new friends, managing money, playing team sports, cooking, and fashion ideas, etc. Young girls love learning how to be as strong as their American Girl, and mothers love the values taught through the books and events offered such cooking classes, daddy-daughter and mother-daughter activities, and more. The product is the least of the experience while at American Girl Place yet I was hard pressed to find any young girl with mom in tow that didn't walk out the door with a huge new supply of doll clothes and accessories.

Needless to say, American Girl presents an experience that is memorable, relevant, personally value, and worth talking about. Doing the same for your brand is critical to succeeding. No matter how exciting or unexciting your product is, there is still an experience to create. For commoditized products, the experience is the only way to create distinction, and thus consistent revenue streams.

Experiences come in many different forms. One is knowledge. To me, there are few better experiences, especially in the B2B world, than knowledge sharing. Xerox creates a great experience associated with its variable data technology, most notably the iGen3 digital production press. They regularly invite customers and prospects to a Thought Leadership Workshop at their headquarters in Rochester, NY, all expenses paid, where they teach owners of print shops how to grow their business to keep up with changes in the industry, present technology that will provide new revenue streams, and how to market new capabilities resulting from their investment in Xerox equipment. The workshops deliver valuable objective information and are not disguised sales presentations. For customers, Xerox provides tools and resources to build their businesses, and client referrals as possible.

American Express' Merchant Division has dedicated teams that conduct research in various retail segments and then provide findings along with marketing tools to members.

On the consumer side of business, Wegman's groceries, a gourmet chain primarily serving east coast markets, prides themselves on having the most knowledgeable employees in the industry. They send their department heads to food training programs in Europe and elsewhere to help them become experts in their field. This way customers can get solid advice on which of Wegman's 400 plus varieties of cheese will go best with whatever meat or vegetables they plan to serve for dinner. Employees are very proud of their knowledge and love to share it freely with customers, who love it just as much. Knowledge is a big part of the Wegman's experience, and part of the reason it is one of the few chains that has not succumbed to Wal-Mart's dominance in the supermarket industry.

To ensure that knowledge is part of the customer experience, Cabella's, adventure outfitters, allows employees to borrow products for weeks, even months, to get a feel for how something works, and to enable them to give customers the “real scoop” on functionality, and satisfaction, and make recommendations based on first hand knowledge, not product brochures.

The dictionary definition of experience is “acquiring knowledge through the senses rather through abstract reasoning.” In marketing, interactive experiences are highly successful forms of “selling.” When consumers are engaged with a brand, and can feel what its like to use a product, or work with a specific consultant, the chances of conversion are far greater.

Select Comfort's marketing launch for its Sleep Number beds is a great example of engagement that delivers knowledge. Years ago when this new bedding technology was first presented, the Sleep Number centers held open houses where people were invited to come and try out their beds and determine their best sleep number. While there, they were given information on sleep disorders, and tips for getting a better night's sleep. It was a fabulously successful campaign, generating more than 350,000 in-store visits, 40,000 website inquiries, 47 million exposures to its messages and a boost of 30% in sales.

Tampax feminine hygiene products conducted a campaign a few years ago that reached out to African American women to help them gain trust in tampons as safe and effective products. They did this not by preaching and upping the frequency of their mass media schedule, but through creating experiences that allowed consumers to learn facts vs. myths through personally rewarding, fulfilling, and informative activities. Tampax scheduled Women's Health Events at college campuses and other venues nationwide. They invited African American women in leadership positions to present on health and lifestyle themes, offered classes on fashion, beauty, and even massages for attendees. The results: Tampax was able to deliver 25,000 product samples to let potential customers experience its product, generate nearly 200,000 user sessions on its web site, and around 20 million exposures to its marketing message.

These and other effective brand experiences are built upon trust: Trust that there is something of inherent value that meets my individual needs for personal or professional growth; trust that I will be given the knowledge to make wise decisions, and trust, that the company will take care of me after the sales has closed.

Without trust, offering an exciting or thrilling experience is an act of futility. With trust, an innovative, experience that ignites enthusiasm and buzz, can break you away from your competition and do wonders for your bottom line.

Research shows that:
  • Three out of five consumers won't do business with a brand they don't trust
  • 42% will buy more from a brand they trust
  • 54% will recommend a brand they trust to others
A survey conducted by Yankelovich Partners shows that trust is the number one reason consumers change brands, and that no method for regaining trust has ever been identified. If you don't think trustworthiness is critical to marketing success, just check out to see what happens to brands that cross the “trust” threshold.

Experiences that build trust are those that:
  • Provide valuable information that enable consumers to make informed, involved decisions and feel smart about their choices.
  • Enable consumers to engage with brand representatives, products, or services without any pressure or obligation to buy. REI does this well with its hiking groups, in-store climbing walls, and other non-selling activities.
  • Deliver pleasant surprises. Remember what a nice surprise it was when a sales clerk didn't charge you full price just because, or threw in a little something extra? Or threw out a store's return policy to give you a break? That kind of behavior makes you feel good about that business, almost like you've made a new friend, and leaves you with a memorable experience that is worth talking about.
  • Result in value far beyond what you paid for. There's just something that makes you feel good about getting a “free gift.” That is why many people will sit through product demonstrations, or open up a credit card they really don't need. Getting something for nothing, even to the wealthy, creates feelings of achievement or privilege. If done right, the resulting sales will more than cover the costs of the gifts.
Successful experiential marketing must take into consideration the values, attitudes, personalities, lifestyle and “obsessions” of the target audience. Even small aspects that are not directly relevant can minimize the impact. A great example of a relevant campaign I read about recently was a conference for computer programmers. Instead of the typical staid conference environment, the event planners recreated the attendees work environment. They held educational sessions and activities well into the night, had sleeping bags and pillows strewn throughout the hallways, and plenty of coffee and doughnut stations.

Other memorable experiences are those that allow people to live differently for a day. One company that was trying to sell semi-trucks to independent truck operators and freight companies held a golf tournament and provided each participant with their own golf pro for the day. They got great coaching, a beautiful environment, and even a video taping of their performance free of charge.

No matter what business you're in, or the nature of your selling environment, you can create experiences that drive product trial, repeat business, and ultimately lifetime value. Experiences can take place at a physical store, via your web or e-commerce site, and even over the phone. Rethink how you engage customers, what type of information you share with them, opportunities you present for product trial. And move beyond meeting and evening exceeding customers' expectations with your customer service and marketing programs, and start creating memorable experiences that will create trust, value and something worth talking about.

Jeanette McMurtry is a local emotional and experiential marketing expert, columnist, presenter, and former talk show host. She has served brands in all industries with strategic planning for successful marketing and customer service programs. She is currently the Chief Strategy Office for The Hanson Group, a marketing firm, and can be reached at 970 390 6909 or

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