What is the brand experience gap?

Phil explains the brand experience gap and what you can to combat it.

Illustration of a rope bridge across a canyon river.

When an organisation’s brand promises one thing but the experience of interacting with them doesn’t live up to it, we call it the “brand experience gap”.

You can find this gap in every sector. Advertising tells customers one thing, but the reality is often found lacking.

In this article, we’ll cover why this gap is important and how to close it.

Why does the brand experience gap matter?

There’s an important link between what customers expect and what actually happens to them.

A brand makes a promise about what someone can expect from interacting with an organisation, whether that be quick and reliable service, the best prices, the highest quality or any number of other attributes. 

Problems arise when the expectations set by a brand are not fulfilled.

Imagine that a restaurant chain’s advertising promises to deliver food quickly but a customer experiences repeated delays. The customer will stop believing the brand’s promise and stop eating there. It doesn’t matter how much money is spent trying to convince them otherwise; they know that the reality is different.

In today’s digital world, customers also share their experiences. Any gaps between a promise and reality are quickly exposed – all it takes is a few App Store reviews. It doesn’t take long for an organisation that says one thing and does another to be found out.

This presents a challenge for organisations. How can they live up to their brand promises and make sure that customers get the experience that they expect?

How to close the brand experience gap

1. Those who set promises must involve those who make them a reality

If the expectations set by your brand promise are unclear or unachievable, you’ll find it difficult to get your experience to match up to it.

Unfortunately, many organisations task different people with setting brand promises and delivering on them.

Typically, a brand/advertising/marketing team will communicate with customers and set expectations about what the organisation is like, then a completely separate group of teams will have to figure out how to deliver on that.

Of course, what typically happens is that brand promises are made without any real thought into how they will be turned into reality.

To combat this brand teams must work more closely with other parts of their organisation.

This is difficult because it means managing and negotiating with more stakeholders, but if those other teams are more bought into the brand promise, they’re more likely to make it a reality.

2. Use design research to discover what to do, not just to check your work 

One reason that a brand experience gap can exist is because an organisation doesn’t understand its customers in enough detail or that insight is not widely shared.

If different teams have different knowledge and assumptions, they will inevitably create a disjointed experience.

Many organisations now do usability testing and use it as a way to check their work with customers. This stops you making terrible design decisions, but it doesn’t tell you what to create in the first place. It won’t help you uncover unmet customer needs or understand what you need to change about your experience more broadly.

Formative design research helps you understand people’s lives, their attitudes, behaviours, how they make decisions and so on.

The insight this type of research generates can be used as inspiration not only for the design of products and services, but the formation of a brand promise as well.

Gathering and sharing this type of insight in your organisation prevents brand promises being made that don’t fit with what customers want. It also helps the teams who are delivering the experience to understand how to make the ambition a reality.

3. Bring your vision to life, so that everyone knows what you mean

There’s an icebreaker task we like to use at the start of workshops. We ask attendees to draw a picture of an object (e.g. a car or a house). Everyone is given the same simple requirements for what the object must do, but the results always vary wildly.

This exercise exposes how differently people interpret the same words and the number of assumptions that each person has in their head.

If your brand promise or product vision is only written down or expressed in inscrutable diagrams in a PowerPoint, everyone in your organisation will think it means something slightly different.

This will lead to a brand experience gap, as the vision is implemented in disjointed and incoherent ways across the organisation.

To avoid this, a brand promise or product vision must be brought to life. For example, creating a proof-of-concept allows everyone in the organisation to understand what the future customer experience should look and feel like, without going into the detail of how it will be implemented.

This is something we’ve used to great effect with many clients and it’s something we’ve written about in further detail.

4. Work backwards from the vision

One method to avoid a brand experience gap is to work back from a vision statement.

It seems obvious, but if you start with your ambition rather than current constraints, you’ll end up creating an experience which is more aligned with your vision or brand promise.

Amazon do this by getting teams to write a press release and FAQ when creating new products. They have to be able to describe what the experience will be like before they work out the details. This ensures that the promises they make are tightly coupled to the reality of delivering them. 

Another great example comes from Airbnb. On the Masters of Scale podcast, CEO Brian Chesky describes how they invited a customer to San Francisco on holiday. They sent a photographer to follow him around and what they saw was an awful holiday. He went to Alcatraz by himself, went to a bar on his own and even ate on his own.

They then invited him back to San Francisco, but this time they designed the perfect experience. They had a driver pick him up at the airport. He had the perfect Airbnb. He went to dinner parties and they arranged the best seats at restaurants. They took him on a midnight mystery bike tour with 60 other people. And it really moved him. He said it was the best trip he’d ever been on. 

That became the blueprint for what Airbnb wanted to do. They knew they could do it for one person, so now they had to work out how to do it for 100 million people. Since then, they’ve introduced Airbnb Experiences, which is a way to create this kind of bespoke experience at scale.

5. Don’t let unimportant parts of the experience let you down

If you want to be who you say you are, you have to do it consistently. This is as true with brands as it is people.

Most organisations are complex beasts and customers can interact with them in many different ways: in person, on the phone, in apps, websites, social media and so on.

Living up to the expectations set by a brand in all of these places all of the time is one of the biggest challenges for any organisation.

One way that many fall short is by ignoring parts of their customer experience which then become neglected.

Some parts of the product or service never make it to the top of the backlog, so never get any resource to improve them. Before you know it, part of the experience hasn’t been updated in 10 years and all that time, it’s been undermining the good effort being put in elsewhere.

Organisations who want to avoid a brand experience gap need to deliberately set aside time to tend to these seemingly unimportant parts of the experience. Every detail matters.

In summary

The brand experience gap is a problem that every organisation faces and it’s one that doesn’t go away once ‘fixed’. Any large group of people working together will always be pulling in slightly different directions and inevitability this misalignment will show up in the customer experience. 

Minimising the gap between the expectations you set and what actually happens to customers should be a priority for any organisation.

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