Why Your Brand Must Be an Experience

As marketers, we're leaving an embarrassing amount of money on the table by ignoring the full sensory experience of how customers experience our brands.
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Last year, I traveled to Madrid and was regaled with tales of its paella, sangria, and tapas. But... the Thai food? In fact, it didn't come to the Spanish capital until 1995, when the small, high-end chain Thai Gardens opened. (They also boast international outposts in Mexico and Brazil). Jonesing for tofu pad thai, I stumbled onto a marketing lesson more American businesses should apply.

Branding strategist Martin Lindstrom reports that 83% of commercial communication appeals only to our eyes, yet a full "75% of our day-to-day emotions are influenced by what we smell" and "there's a 65% chance of a mood change when exposed to a positive sound." As marketers, we're leaving an embarrassing amount of money on the table by ignoring the full sensory experience of how customers experience our brands.

Most Thai restaurants I've visited in the U.S. range from "hole in the wall" to "pretty nice" -- a spectrum seemingly determined by the presence or absence of wall hangings, throw pillows and the like (my local favorite has a three-dimensional wooden elephant glued to the cover of their menu). The food can be amazing at any of them. But in most parts of the country, the customer experience -- and the prices charged -- are rarely top-of-the-line.

Thai Gardens, however -- located in a country not particularly known for a robust Asian subculture -- has staked out the high end with panache. There are the obligatory golden Buddhas. But also dramatic lighting, from dimmed overhead lights to candles and inlaid artwork on the walls, illuminated from above. Rough-hewn stone pillars and copious wood, evocative of a temple. And -- just a whiff as you enter the threshold -- incense. Aside from stoners and Catholic priests, most Americans neglect it in our everyday lives -- so when it's deployed, it's powerful. Otherworldly. An experience outside the norm. Something special. And isn't that worth a few dollars more on your spring rolls?

For too many companies, "branding" means a logo and a tagline -- period. But that's only the tip of the iceberg. The real definition of branding is every single way you communicate with your customers, from how you answer the reservations line to the mint at the end of the meal. Your brand -- the essence of what you want to communicate to buyers and potential buyers -- should permeate everything you do.

Incense and well-lit Buddhas may not be the secret for your business. But we can all learn from Thai Gardens and ask ourselves: How do we create a brand that immerses our clients fully? The more powerfully we create a unique experience, the stronger our customer relationships will be.

What are your best strategies for creating a powerful brand experience?

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out, and you can receive her free Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook.

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