June 20, 2019

Winning the customer experience race

Brand-led experiences are changing how companies act — and winning the war for customer love


By now, we all accept that we are living in a time of relentless, transcendental change and unparalleled complexity, driven mostly by technological disruption where many proven conventions that powered businesses for decades are in question. There is no business as usual. The laws of supply and demand are being rewritten.

Today, the difference between front-runners and also-rans isn’t technology. It’s creating a business that behaves differently in order to create meaningful customer relationships.


It’s truly an adapt-or-perish moment. Legacy brands and businesses have to work the hardest to keep up with this change—managing disruption from digitally native organizations as well as finding new ways to adapt to an evolving customer who demands better value and deeper meaning.

Technology, once the key driver of product and service differentiation, has now become an equalizer, enabling almost any business, service or product to be great, in far less time and with far fewer resources, forcing companies to have to differentiate on the basis of something else.

These companies, used to leading and owning their space through high volume “everything” have based their strategies on blanketing as much of the market as possible with a vast array of service and product options and line extensions to address as many audiences as possible (e.g., “How many toothpaste SKUs can we create?”).

But in this time of the empowered, discerning and often fickle customer, whether B2B or B2C, it’s no longer a game of shelf or screen space or reach, but rather knowing where to focus for maximum impact.

Businesses have an urgent need to re-evaluate traditional growth strategies and how they look at the customer. But we mean, really look to understand how to better serve them, not just sell them.


How do you change? Which business models do you protect and which do you discard? What to focus on first?

The necessary pivot for companies who seek relevance and growth in the post-disruption era is creating a business that behaves differently, one that doesn’t push products that don’t fulfill a purpose or ignores what customers need and what they want. That operates with surgical precision, seamlessly, offering the right products or services to the right customer and in a way that creates meaning and value.

One that thinks first about experiences, then transactions. That sees customer experience as the brand differentiator.

This is a big move. From marketing products to creating a meaningful relationships that put customers at the center. This will require organizations to rethink not just how they market outwards, but how they organize internally to allow themselves to put the customer first, not just what they have in inventory or in the R&D pipeline.

The CX Factor

Customer experience is how your customers and clients perceive their interactions with your company.

It is an approach to creating business value that is considered by many to be the most powerful driver of new customer acquisition and retention. More than 80 percent of companies say they will compete mostly or completely on the basis of customer experience within two years, according to Gartner’s Customer Experience in Marketing Survey. A Walker study found that by the year 2020, customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator.

Many businesses think they’re already delivering top-shelf CX. Yet, in a recent study by Bain that surveyed 362 firms, they found that 80 percent believed they already delivered a “superior experience” to their customers. But customers tell a different story. When asked about their own perceptions, they said that only eight percent of companies were really delivering. That huge gap is a tremendous opportunity. Closing it requires companies to rethink what clients and customers want and what they really need. Yes, back to the fundamental business drivers.

So instead of continuing to ask “What else can we sell people?” or “How can we get people to engage with our programs or messages?” businesses need to fully put themselves in the customer’s shoes and visualize what would make every aspect of their experience more enjoyable, valuable and meaningful. The question becomes: How do we deliver a single compelling customer story? Or, to quote the wise words of Tyrion Lannister: “What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? No. It’s stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.”

Brand-led experiences create lasting imprints that drive choice

What makes a lasting customer experience? A good customer experience has to mean something and evoke a feeling. The intended feeling. And this is where brand-led experiences come in.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel laureate and founder of behavioral economics, talks about the difference between the experiencing self and the remembering self. The experiencing self lives in the present—the fast, intuitive, unconscious mode of thinking that focuses on how happy you are in the moment, living life rather than thinking about it. The remembering self is a storyteller, keeps score, etches memories and uses those memories to anticipate the future, it’s how we think about our experience. We make choices based on our remembering self. The in-between moments are lost to time without a trace.

But most interesting is this: what lingers for the remembering self are changes in the story, significant (especially intense) moments and the ending (yes, the last moment often determines how you remember the entire experience).

Now, transfer that remembering principle to brand experiences. A brand is, in essence, the vessel by which we aggregate and communicate the stories a company or product wants to tell us, as well as the principles that guide how the brand behaves internally & externally. Brand-led experiences are the way to create long-lasting meaning that weaves moments together, supporting twists and turns in the story that people will remember, personalize and draw upon later. Without a brand as filter, they’re just unrelated experiences that will vanish as quickly as they came. Even if they were great.

This means that to create lasting, real-world, real-human impact, we can’t look at experiences in isolation or as one-offs, but rather as a system of interactions that are connected to each other while also being able to stand alone. We shouldn’t just solve for “frictionless” or “joyful” or “omni-channel” at one moment in time. We want to understand where that experience fits within the broader network of interactions and how each moment contributes to the complete story.

More than ever, brands need to be the filter for deploying and activating business strategy.

Building a model brand-led experience

At VSA, we call this network of moments the Meaningful Experience Model or MXMTM. It’s our way of envisioning and creating a blueprint that fully accounts for how interactions are connected, what long term effect they have on the business and how they help drive brand choice and brand love.

Rather than “fix” every touchpoint, this model allows us to identify which ones align closest to the brand promise and expectations. It enables us to assess the brand experience state through three lenses to diagnose where to focus: category expectations, customer requirements and brand promise, and use this to determine what to add, eliminate or improve.

The more we can understand what each brand interaction is meant to do, the better we can design these moments with intent. This not only helps create a clear and meaningful brand experience internally and externally, but it helps move the customer along the journey much more efficiently while creating value for the customer and driving choice and love for the brand.

And because all moments are not created equal, we see this network of interactions as an ecosystem of parts that consist of:

Moments of Impact (MOIs)

Moments with the highest potential to deliver on the promise of the brand and create long-lasting memories that help drive choice.

Brand Ownables

The foundational, unique experiences, or elements that define the brand or service long term. Can be anything from product design, to voice, to visual cues.

Brilliant Basics

The brand interactions that deliver the basic expectations of the category and are meant to move the journey seamlessly forward rather than create lasting imprints.

In an era of business transformation and technological complexity, traditional approaches to branding and marketing are being rewritten at record speed, replaced by investment in holistic, brand-led customer experiences.

Brand love ultimately comes from delivering meaning and value, told cohesively through a story with intentional moments that reflect – and connect with – what your customer needs and wants.

Anything else is a waste of your customer’s time—and of your brand’s budgets.

Ariadna Navarro

Partner, Head of Strategy

Ariadna helps clients identify growth potential by identifying the intersection between brand and business strategy, human needs and customer experience. She oversees a team of 18 strategists at VSA, and uses analytics, experience design, innovation and brand and business strategy to find unique opportunities for clients from IBM to AT&T. Ariadna is relentlessly curious, whether it’s figuring out the future of Quantum computing or deeply understanding how a new acquisition fits within a company’s portfolio. While solving problems is what drives her, she is particularly passionate about portfolio strategy, brand strategy and unearthing powerful human insights. Ariadna joined VSA after heading up strategy at Interbrand. She is originally from Venezuela, but has called New York home for a very long time.