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The Brand is the Experience

How to create extraordinary moments and engender instant loyalty

The Brand is the Experience

The story about the birth of Southwest Airlines is very enlightening. It details the battle the founders faced when they tried to start their fledgling airline, but buried in court documents and the eventual start of short-haul flights was the notion Herb Kelleher had that if employees were treated well, they would treat customers well.

This was well before the days of marketing shifted to a branding focus, but at the core of this concept was what would become the Southwest brand.

When I was a little girl, trips to the airport and flying were indeed an experience. Journalist raconteur Andre Leon Talley once shared the story of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and her sister getting their hair done just to arrive at the airport. Like most of the day, how you experienced something mattered. Today, flying is much less glamorous. It has become a method of getting from point A to point B. It is no wonder airlines appear to be doing the bare minimum to get your business.

So why does Southwest continue to choose its brand over what analysts might think is a better business strategy? More than likely, you have had a chance to take a flight on Southwest, and you have experienced the focus Southwest has on its brand as coming through its employees. From the job descriptions for a mechanic (seriously, check it out) to the quirky ways employees deliver the not-so-typical safety instructions, you are in the presence of a Brand (with a capital B).

We have all heard of or experienced brands with memorable, talkable experiences. Disney, Chewy, Chick-fil-A, and Zappos. The list (actually) goes on.

A couple of years ago, when the Clubhouse app was getting off the ground, I had some great conversations with who I lovingly referred to as some “old-school casino guys.” They have some great stories of how, at least in their minds, things used to be. As a brand marketer, I have to ask why casino operations are no longer mentioned in the great experience conversation.

For some, it has been a matter of budget cuts and process improvement. For some, it may have never been a genuine commitment, but I am here to tell you that your brand will not endure if the guest experience is not worth talking about positively (and sharing with others).

Large or small, your company can create great memorable experiences, and there are lessons to be learned all around us.

Team members who are given tools and trust create extraordinary moments.

Ritz-Carlton has maintained its leadership in luxury lodging by focusing on fundamentals and adhering to rigorous standards. The lynch-pin in their strategy is their people—ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.

Ritz-Carlton has maintained its leadership in luxury lodging by focusing on fundamentals and adhering to rigorous standards. The lynchpin in their strategy is their people—ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen. Borrowing the family dinner concept of many restaurants, Ritz-Carlton’s lineup happens at every single hotel, everywhere in the world. Every shift is covered, and every team member participates. A signature part of the lineup is a “wow story” spotlighting team members’ actions to create those legendary Ritz-Carlton moments. The consistency of having the same message delivered everywhere supports the focus on service. Moreover, the operator understands that things might still go wrong with a guest’s experience. So, every team member is authorized to repair an experience up to $2,000.

As a side note, I recently had a conversation with someone who could recall a casino operator with a similar approach. Still, I am not sure anyone does this anymore. 

There’s pet-friendly, and then there is PET-FRIENDLY.

One of my favorite hotel brands is Kimpton. I stumbled onto them quite accidentally. Our admin booked me there because it was close to a meeting I was having in another city. When I arrived, I discovered the stories of a pet-friendly hotel ahead of its time. In the words of their director of pet relations, “we invite you to bring your hairy, feathery or scaly family member with you for your stay—no matter their size, weight, or breed, all at no extra charge. If your pet fits through the door, we’ll welcome them in.” And for those who traveled without their family member, the hotel would provide a goldfish. Unfortunately, the latter practice ended, but the lesson was that Kimpton understood its guests would miss their pets and created an inviting space to feel at home.

Guest loyalty is more than points.

A subsequent visit to a different Kimpton and a second dinner at Capital Grille proved to me that CRM systems are only as robust as the usage. During the original Kimpton trip, I discovered they had yoga lessons as part of their in-room TV selections. Additionally, I could call the front desk for a mat and other equipment for my class. It was a nice break from the typical visit to the hotel gym. On a visit to a different Kimpton location, I was surprised to find yoga equipment already placed in my room with a note from the front desk when I checked in! Now, whenever I travel, I look to see if Kimpton is an option, even though I have many points with a bigger chain.

My first dinner at Capital Grille was nice. My second visit was extraordinary when the sommelier asked if we wanted to try a bottle of wine because it was similar to a previous one. Remember, this was only my second visit there. This is akin to a $150 customer coming in for the second time and the steakhouse knowing their preferences. Sure, we probably know the preferences of our VIP guests, but how many preferences do we capture (and use) for our mid-tier guests?

Some investments in the brand experience do not have a one-to-one ROI.

Apple does not see a direct ROI from their Genius Bar. However, they see it in their brand loyalty every time they announce a new phone, tablet, MacBook, or watch.

Years ago, as we toured one of our Midwest locations, one of our finance executives noticed a soft-serve ice cream machine near the buffet. It wasn’t in the buffet dessert area. Instead, it was located just outside of the buffet. While we enjoyed lunch with the property team, someone came up, took a cone, helped themselves to a frozen treat, and walked away.

Of course, the finance executive asked the general manager why he hadn’t moved the machine in to be part of the buffet, and then, of course, he wondered what the property’s ice cream costs were. 

The GM shook off the comment and said he had thought about it when he took over the operation. If he could make a few people happy to give them something inexpensive, he figured the profit in the casino could cover it. In truth, only a handful of people helped themselves without purchasing the buffet.

On a worldwide stage, Apple is an excellent example of creating brand loyalty with an investment in the experience. Easily accessible and free customer support costs money, but it also creates a culture of ease and commitment to customer success. Apple does not see a direct ROI from their Genius Bar. However, they see it in their brand loyalty every time they announce a new phone, tablet, MacBook, or watch.

Short-term sacrifices can pay off in the long run.

Returns of Zappos purchases are reportedly three times higher than for brick-and-mortar stores, but the company’s 365-day return policy and complimentary two-way shipping mean customers can shop confidently. Additionally, Zappos’ approach to its culture and customer service means that each customer is treated with care.

Today’s consumer demands a friction-free experience.

Before the pandemic, we were becoming accustomed to exceptional ease in obtaining the goods and services we wanted. The pandemic showed many a Luddite the joys of friction-free everything.

I can order my dog’s food and have it delivered on a regular schedule, so I never have to look at their faces when I run out of food and have to borrow some from the neighbor. I can easily refill groceries by this afternoon without leaving my desk. In fact, my best friend was able to order food and medicine for me when I was sick from over 700 miles away with a few taps of her phone.

Reducing the effort guests must go through to experience your brand is a must for anyone. How many people does a guest have to speak to get a question answered? How about your website? What does it take for someone to find the information they need to plan their next trip?

The development of cashless and player wallet technology is removing some of the friction guests have experienced, but brand marketers need to be asking what other points of friction we should be eliminating. Reducing the effort guests must make to enjoy their visits will net you happier guests, and happy guests tell their friends and family good things about you.

Why is customer experience so important to your brand?

While all of these stories are seemingly based on training and tools, a deeper review will show you a tale of brands committed to creating experiences that go beyond a logo.

Acquisition costs will only go up, and I don’t mean just online betting options.

Customer attention has become fragmented, and brands now have to be in more places than ever before. So, when you get a new customer, you need to be ready to wow them. And when it comes to your current customer base, they need to continually experience the brand in a way they will share with others. There is a reason “bring a friend” programs have been part of our go-to player’s club promotions.

Marketers must include the experience in their brand focus. We must look at more than just the top of the brand iceberg; we must look for improvements wherever possible.

Any size operation can take the journey to an experience-centric brand.

Evaluate your mission, vision, and purpose. Do your actions reinforce these values? Are you committed to excellent customer service but focus most of your efforts on efficiencies? You can see how these two mindsets might coexist in the same environment yet are at odds with each other.

Prioritize a branded customer journey above and beyond just knowing the touchpoints and having them be the right color/logo/font. Forbes Insights Report showed that 74 percent of consumers are at least somewhat likely to buy based on experience alone. However, it is never just one touchpoint that will create loyalty. It is the sum of all. Understanding the customer journey (and indeed, the team member journey as well) can aid you in creating memorable experiences.

Create a feedback loop. Never underestimate the minds and feelings of your guests. You may think you know how they feel, but until you ask, you never indeed do. My experience in guest research has taught me that casino customers love to give you their thoughts, opinions and ideas. So, ask for them! This can be done in various ways, from post-visit surveys to blue-ribbon panels, to formal focus groups.

Invest in your team members. From the moment they decide to apply for a job, they should understand your brand and their potential role in creating that experience. They are your brand. This should include your call center, which we often outsource even though they have as much if not more contact with our guests. Have you ever written off a company based on one interaction with an employee? If you outsource any of your customer interactions (such as your call center), ensure your partner understands your brand and its values and is willing to be as dedicated to that vision as you are.

The guest experience is a battleground for brands, particularly if you operate with competitors only a drive away.

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