Getting ready for the experience war

Are you ready for the experience war? (It’s been building for ages)

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At the AG Ideas Business Breakfast held in Melbourne way back in 2012, Mauro Porcini, Chief Design Officer, 3M pitched an emerging social scenario that would in time lead to the experience war we have today; one where consumers are not just savvy, expert and demanding, but also are difficult to categorise and understand.

The key reason? Four overlapping generations (boomers, X, Y and Z) and different geographies and cultures (which themselves were in different states of market maturity). The emergence of this social scenario, he said, had led to a sea-change in product development – where companies such as 3M have moved from developing products focused on functional tasks to releasing products that now essentially accompany experiences intended to fulfil emotional needs.

A rush of irrationality

He talked about increased irrationality on the part of customers, or rather, needs that are now much more difficult to rationalise, and asserted that catering to these whimsical audiences required organisations to function and innovate outside their comfort zones. But at the same time as it jeopardises traditional corporate approaches to product development, this new market dynamic hands leadership opportunities to those prepared to mix innovation (meeting people’s needs) with customer engagement (through storytelling and prototyping).

Products were now operating at three levels, according to Porcini. They must compete effectively in an age of mass customisation (meaning they must provide what he referred to as “intimate pleasure”); they must work as a signal to others that the brand user belongs to a community (because consumers want to be able to send signals about varying types and levels of status to those around them); and the products themselves must convey and carry meaning (so there must be a natural flow between the product and people).

Design beats innovation – sometimes

Design, he asserted, can be a powerful contributor to all of these operations … as long as companies don’t simply see design as styling. His views echoed those of Göran Roos earlier who, in his opening statements, had said that design continues to be misunderstood, particularly in the business world. Design, said Roos, has been assigned the label of art. However, in today’s context, it is not about developing pretty things at all, but rather creating value. The objective of design is to generate and achieve behavioural change; change that is desirable for the user, beneficial to the supplier and positively impacts other stakeholders.

Apple is a living example, Roos said, of the triumph of design over innovation. Apple didn’t so much break new ground, as redesign emerging ground, and that when they do this well, everyone in the Apple ecosystem benefited. Clearly the Apple brand benefits. But so do those people who design apps that can be used on Apple devices and so do the telcos that carry the data generated by these apps.

I’ve long held and expressed the view that most of the innovation hype is based on a myth – and the myth is that if you innovate, you will succeed. Not true, Roos seemed to be saying. You don’t have to be the innovator – if you back your design approach enough to trump what the market has seen already. Not true either, according to Porcini, if you think that innovation revolves around products. Increasingly you must look to innovate experiences, and design products to deliver them.

Sometimes when you get negative feedback in research, what you’re hearing is not market rejection, it’s market indecision.

Forget about satisfaction, Porcini asserted. Deliver customers magical, surprising experiences. Insist on it. So many companies, he said, set out to be exceptional and then let the magic and the pleasure be ground away during development. The secret was to conduct research and to listen to it, but not to necessarily believe everything you’re told. Sometimes what you’re hearing is not market rejection, it’s market indecision. It’s literally a lack of imagination on the part of those being polled to see what it is you’re asking them to give an opinion on. Design led companies, he said, get that. They learn, they adjust but they don’t compromise.

Experiences are too important to be left to chance. Instead they must be carefully designed. Porcini talked us through how great experiences have a strong pragmatic flow that mirrors the sales funnel. People buy into an idea. They see and purchase. They receive/unpack and they discover. They use and interact. They keep and live with the product. And one day, they dismiss the product from their lives and they leave it behind (perhaps for an upgrade, perhaps for a competitor).

Experiences shift through four emotions

Simultaneously, he said, people’s experience with a product evolves through an emotional flow. They start out by having a visceral experience (the impulsive, purchase decision). Then they have an interactive relationship (where they immerse themselves in the product and enjoy it). At this stage, they accumulate loyalty. Finally, they have an expressive relationship, during which time they want to share their experience with others and recommend the product to all their friends. He didn’t explain why customers then move on from this expressive relationship to leaving the relationship (assuming that the pragmatic flow and the emotional flow mirror each other as a logic” magic combination), but as I said earlier I suspect it is because they upgrade and the process starts again, or they are tempted to make an impulsive decision elsewhere. In which case, I wonder whether we should see both processes as linear.

What this scenario demanded though, said Porcini, was that brands pack as much experience into each part of the relationship as they could. Nothing should be exempt – product, packaging, the purchase experience, web, interaction with people, facilities – all should work to delight and deliver magic.

Finally, let me share Porcini’s definition of a “design strategy” because I think it is quite different from how many companies would define it. Design strategy, he said, is business strategy that leverages design. What I got from this is that value is designed not generated, and it is quite literally born of how a company thinks.

That thought led me to review my own definition of brand strategy, which I have now amended to this. Brand strategy is how a business leverages its brand(s) to achieve its business goals. (Brands will only achieve those goals if they are prepared to intelligently design for value and competitiveness.)

Experience escalation is inevitable

Perhaps my biggest take from that session was that, among the world’s big product brands at least, the war for market share would now be firmly experience-driven.

Porcini said we should expect those experiences to not only come thick and fast, but also for them to become less spontaneous as companies looked to design more and more of how they delivered as well as what they delivered.(Affirmation is another powerful emotion in helping people feel like an experience is worth it.)

Expect too, he said, that the value of each experience would commoditise much more quickly as consumers came to expect surprises-by-design as a matter of course. In fact, I’ve argued elsewhere that too many marketers have succumbed to turning customer experiences into marketing sugar.

Finally, understand that innovation in such an environment could perhaps be more accurately described as the opportunity to supersede rather than the continuing invention of the “new”. Companies like Apple had shown that out-delivering by out-designing is a powerful strategy, and that second-to-market has the potential to be better-in-market than whoever got there first. Innovation, in other words, needs to engage to work and not just impress.

Updated: This post was originally published in May 2012. It was reviewed and updated in July 2018.


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