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 Next Frontier In Marketing

“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]


About the author

Jacob does strategy at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness, which is a great area for anyone interested in communication and behavior. How people behave and think about health and wellness is complicated, high stakes and goes to the root of the human condition.