Experience Is The Next Frontier In Marketing

As antithetical as it may seem in a hyper-digital word, experience—how we interact in the physical world—is the biggest buzzword in marketing today. Here's how smart companies are considering customer experience when they look to the future.

"Experience" is the marketing buzzword of our time.

It seems like every week someone is extolling the vast untapped potential of experience to move your customers: Starcom recently created a Chief Experience Officer position; SMG Global CEO Laura Desmond has called experience the "future of advertising," and Starbucks is revitalizating through a focus on moments of "human connection."

And they're right—experience is the future of marketing. The problem with these ideas is that they are fuzzy. They are more a call to arms built around a smattering of case studies than a real, concrete understanding of what we mean when we say "experience," and how exactly experience is going to shape customer behavior.

So let's get specific, starting with the meaning of experience. When I say "experience," what I mean is interactions with the physical world. Moving to pick up a hot mug of coffee, the smooth, hot ceramic in your hands, smiling—these concrete happenings are experience. They seem mundane to you, because they are so common—every moment of your life is spent interacting with and reacting to the world around you—but because of the way these experiences work on your brain, they can be immensely powerful.

What we have learned over the last two decades is that these everyday interactions with the physical world are a kind of source code for your brain. In the same way that there is computer code behind every web page you see, your physical experiences are behind the ideas you have.

Here's an easy example of what I mean. Your brain uses the physical experience of "heavy" (as in lifting a box full of books) to make sense of the concept of "important." This code is written into your unconscious at a young age, when you are exploring the world, and you find that heavy things take a lot of effort to lift and move. Dealing with significant weight expends a lot of time and energy, so you quickly learn to do it only when the result is important to you. Researchers revealed this bit of brain source code when they gave people a resume to look at and asked people how qualified they thought the candidate to be. Half the people got the resume on a clipboard that had been weighed down—and those people reliably thought the candidate was more qualified and more serious about the job—even though everyone was looking at the exact same resume.

The researchers had written a bit of experiential code into peoples' interaction with the world, and their brains unconsciously incorporated the experience of a heavy weight in their hands into their thoughts about the applicant. This may seem like just a neat trick, but there are dozens of studies like this one: standing in a big, open space makes you think you are powerful; riding up an escalator activates your ideas of morality; warmth triggers your ideas of affection. Each new piece of research confirms that this experiential source code is a fundamental part of the way your brain works. You just do not notice it because it takes place in your unconscious.

The thrilling part of all of this is that experience is a code—meaning there is logic and structure to it, a logic and structure that you can learn to use intentionally. The companies of the future will have broken this code and baked it into their work and processes, intentionally writing the appropriate experiences into the lives of their customers.

To get you started, here's a brief overview of the five major types of experience that form the basic building blocks of the experiential code set. Each type is backed by a wealth of research validating how your brain decodes these physical experiences into ideas.

Sensations: These are experiences like heavy and light, clean and dirty, hot and cold, rough and smooth. Each sensory experience writes to specific ideas in your brain. For instance, hot writes to ideas of affection and friendliness, whereas cold writes to ideas of loneliness and social isolation. Clean writes to ideas of morality and doing the right thing, while dirty writes to ideas of immorality and sin.

Actions: These are the experiences you have moving your body. Smiling, nodding, sitting up straight, crossing your arms, taking a pill—all of these actions write to ideas. Actions are wonderful because they are experiences that are easy to decode—their meaning is usually obvious. But that does not make them any less powerful, as a team of researchers showed when they gave people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome a sugar pill, told them that it was a sugar pill, and still saw a significant improvement in their symptoms. Even though people knew that what they were taking was not medicine, the physical experience still turned on the idea that they were being treated.

Space: Your physical experience with space includes moving toward or away from something, moving up or down, being below or above an object or an event, or being close or far away from something. Unlike actions and sensations, there are not very many aspects of space, so each one tends to write to several ideas. Moving upwards writes to virtue (like ascending to heaven) but it also writes to power (like preferring taller men, or politicians speaking from a stage).

Situations: Physical experiences with objects and people—especially if they happen over and over again, like with your family and friends—become experiential code. Your parents, co-workers, and friends all write reliably to certain ideas. Objects you find in a business setting, like a briefcase, write to competitiveness, whereas objects from a school setting, like a backpack, denote to cooperation.

Impressions: The last element of experience is one we do not often think of as an experience: using your brain. Just like when you move your body, using your brain costs energy. Sometimes using your brain is easy—it is fast, with little effort—and sometimes it is hard. Your physical experience with easy and hard thinking writes to ideas of right and wrong, important or inconsequential, and safe or risky. For instance, when researchers asked people to think of 12 examples of times that they acted assertive, they were surprised to find that afterwards, people did not think they were very assertive at all, even though they had a long list of examples to the contrary. The reason: thinking of 12 examples of anything is a difficult experience, so their brains decode that as evidence that they are not assertive.

Marketing professionals have spent decades working through how messaging and branding can move customers. Now, modern cognitive science has given us the keys to the kingdom by revealing how our brains use physical experiences to make sense of everything. But to use these keys we must become masters of the experiential code. This race to learn the code is set to become the next battlefield of competitive marketing. These discoveries have the potential to revolutionize marketing and communications—and we all get to be there at the beginning.

Author Jacob Braude is the vice president of strategic planning at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness.

[Image: Flickr user Darwin Bell]

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  • Dhana

    I like the article and its conveys the importance of customer experience to a business. However, I believe this is how marketing & advertising has been functioning all along, though I haven't seen lot of citation about cracking the 'experience code' of a customer. 

    This is quite related to "Customer Experience Marketing" in which we measure customer's experience, improve it over a period of time to "WOW" the customer with great experience, and then convert this WOW in to branding and sales in the future. We've been quite successful in helping our clients with this methodology.

  • Lisa Gapen

    I like the article in that it is clear and spells out some marketing fundamentals, but I'm not sure experience is something that can be touted as a "new" part of marketing. Those of us in the Ad Specialty biz (especially those of us who promote their use in a creative and cohesive way) have been helping companies implement experience externally in the form of items their clients and prospects interact with everyday, and internally through the branding of their physical location.
    I agree with Chris as well- if all of that doesn't result in a genuine, honest, and satisfactory interaction you won't get far for long.

  • Jacob Braude

    Hi Lisa - you make a fair point. There's been physical branding work for decades through events, branded items and the use of a sales force. I'm very interested in your method for matching items with brands - whether you use consumer insight research, best practice or something else?

    What struck me as new and interesting is some of the science that can guide how we match experiences to the ideas brands hope to communicate.

  • Chris Bailey

    While there are some things that I agree with here, what particularly chafes me is that we're now adding "experience" to all the other terms advertisers use to manipulate customers. The idea there is a source code that, once cracked, allows brands to "intentionally write the appropriate experiences into the lives of their customers" seems to be merely an extension of age-old ad practices. What happens when consumers finally start to get wise to being manipulated? As a marketer, I'm growing tired of brands resorting to cheap parlor tricks to "move customers". Here's hoping we get to a future where brands realize the true "experience" isn't a one-way message, but a true two-way interaction between the consumer and a company that respects him or her as an intelligent individual.

  • Jacob Braude

    Hi Chris - Your point is well taken, and really well stated. I've struggled myself with the aspect of manipulation in these ideas (which is why I agreed with Kim Bhasin's article on business insider http://www.businessinsider.com.... I think the nature of how these studies are designed leads us down the parlor tricks path - people have to be blind to what you're testing for the test to be valid.

    But that doesn't mean companies have to treat customers like participants in a study. I'd argue that even a two-way interaction based on respect still benefits from a full understanding of what is being communicated. What this research reveals is that, beyond what you say, the experiences wrapped around your words are communicating something to your customers, and you had better know what that "something" is. Whether you choose to use that knowledge to try and manipulate, or simply to enrich your honest communication is a decision the company should make for themselves.

    BTW, researchers have tested whether these effects persist even when the person knows it is happening. One striking study looked at people with Irritable Bowl Syndrome who were given a placebo and also told that it was a sugar pill and had no medicinal value. They still showed a significant improvement in their symptoms. The action (physical experience) of taking a pill - even when they knew it wasn't medicine - translated in their brain to being treated.

    It's just one study, but I thought it was cool.

  • Abby Trexler

    Hi Jacob,

    Great post. I agree that experience can be an over-used buzz word, but companies that have a history of creating engaging experiences know the marketing value and set themselves apart from their competition. To find out more about how companies can become experience brands, read our white papers at http://www.slideshare.net/jack....

  • Denyse

    Love the post Jacob.
    This goes so much further than any of Lindstrom's work and is so relevant for the whole marketing industry today.
    Thanks a lot for the inspiration!

  • Marty Carroll

    Great post Jacob. I've just started tackling Daniel Kahneman's 'Thinking Fast & Slow' that delves into these topics in some detail. His research on priming is particularly relevant to your points above. For example, he cites research in which people walk more slowly after being exposed to words associated with the elderly such as 'bald', 'wrinkle' and even 'Florida'. 

    As you say it'll be interesting to see how this understanding is applied in practical settings. 

  • Jacob Braude

    Hey Marty - thanks, I really appreciate it. I'm familiar with that study. It comes from the lab of John Bargh at Yale. He's done a lot of interesting work on what he calls "automaticity," which basically just investigates the automated programs running in your unconscious. His studies are always a great read: http://scholar.google.com/scho...