How brand thinking turns "digital first" into "customer first"

Laurence, CEO

In February's Psychology of Brand Experience breakfast event, Laurence Parkes, our Chief Strategy Officer talks about how the Brand Experience Index can help brands accelerate business transformation.

Brands should focus on clearly communicating their brand purpose in order to address issues around customer expectations. However, in a rush to become digital-first, many businesses are forgetting the fundamentals of brand and marketing and neglecting the importance of creating a differentiating experience.

1. The rise of digital first thinking

Rufus Leonard launched our Brand Experience Index (BXi) in September 2016 to build on our unique position in understanding client needs from both the brand and digital perspective, as reflected in our status as The Drum’s #1 Design Elite Agency and #1 Digital Elite Agency.

Before looking at the findings from BXi it’s worth looking at some of the trends that prompted us to create the research, notably that we’re in a world where “Digital is everything and everything is digital”

“Digital first” is a bandwagon that lots of clients have jumped on and I can understand why. Everything we do as marketers and brands is impacted by digital so it makes sense that agencies and businesses centre on the idea of digital first to make changes as quickly as possible in answer to this trend.

And there are clear business reasons for this. At Christmas, retail sales through smart phones increased by 50% and total online retail sales grew by 16%. So, in the retail space alone, there’s huge disruption happening due to digital, especially when we consider that on Black Friday 2016, footfall into physical stores in the UK fell by 1%.

New digital channels are impacting customer loyalty, which is a big deal when 80% of UK customers say they are more likely to switch loyalty from a brand than they were three years ago (Accenture).

There’s little doubt then that it makes sense for clients to capitalise on digital opportunities. 

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2. And yet... the flip side to digital first thinking

To use a music comparison, “video didn’t kill the radio star”. New trends and technologies don’t usually mean the end of what came before. Yes, digital is important but we shouldn’t forget that the traditional communications channels, such as TV, are still important.

We’ve seen this in cases where digital brands recognise the power of physical locations, Amazon Go and Snapchat Spectacles for example. Digital-only brands moving towards a blended approach to deliver on consumer need.

And there are specific sectors in which the digital novelty is wearing off. Last year saw a 16% decline in eBook sales. This wasn’t confined to older readers, the biggest decline came in youth fiction, with sales falling by 35%. This highlights that the digital first approach may have limitations in some areas and indicates that it’s not worth going hell for leather into digital first at all costs.

There’s a quote about Artificial Intelligence from Ashley Friedlein at Econsultancy that emphasises this and takes us into some examples of where the digital first approach can fail: 

You should not do AI, but you should keep on top of how AI can help make smarter things that you are already doing.

Which leads into the three categories of the most prevalent digital #epicfails: 

1. The NVP (Non-Viable Product): Where the “viable” in the product or service is in the wrong place. The BMW skill on Amazon’s Echo/Alexa is a prime example. Users are able to lock the doors on their BMW but the skill isn’t able to tell them whether the doors are locked or not. This is an example where there’s an element of a feature but it hasn’t been thought through and is more likely to create frustration rather than a consumer connection and positive emotion.

2. The Digital Mirage: Where brands create something that looks digital but is really just a façade. Again, Alexa is a great place to find these #epicfails. The Virginia Credit Union skill provides a sense of functionality but then delivers the customer to the brand through the normal channels, such as their customer service phone line.

3. The White Elephant: We see this a lot in connected products, characterised by a use of technology that has no real customer value and isn’t driven by insight. Brita Infinity, for instance, a Wi-Fi enabled water pitcher, might have been a good idea in a brainstorm but only the very wealthy or lazy would ever use this service.

Your response to this might be, “so what, it’s good to innovate, fail and move on” but these digital “innovations” have no place in the zero-based budgeting world in which marketing and R&D teams have to justify every penny spent. Taking these products to market and promoting them when there is no consumer need is wrong. 

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3. Create experiences that make a valuable, emotional, connection with customers

Brands need to engage on an emotional level and should share the same values as their customers. Those that explicitly deliver and create emotional connections tend to keep their customers’ loyalty.

The key to this is don’t think about digital first, think about being customer first. The concept of Customer Experience is a great step forward but was missing the value of brand in setting consumer expectations.

This inspired Rufus Leonard to create our Brand Experience Index (BXi) to help businesses measure their connections with customers by defining and valuing experience through five facets:

Feel - building emotional associations

Do - creating a seamless experience

Connect - growing meaningful communities

Think - clearly communicating brand purpose

Sense - engaging customers through sensorial touch points.

What emerged from the results of the first BXi research, across airlines, retail and telcos, is that the top three brands overall have “Think”, the clear communication of brand purpose, as their strongest facet. This led us to conclude that you must start with your brand purpose when creating new digitally-enhanced services. 

4. The three steps to BXi heaven.

Be explicit about your purpose.

Nike is an example of being very explicit about its role in people’s lives, with a mission of “bringing inspiration and innovation to every athlete”.

Commit to it in everything you do. Giffgaff, “the mobile network run by you” made changes to its whole business model to ensure its community delivers customer service.

Innovate with it, constantly and consistently Hasbro has evolved from a seller of plastic toys to a company that uses digital to enhance its brand purpose across the whole toy range.

And make it a priority to move from “Digital first #efails” to “Customer first #lifegoals”. The three digital experience #lifegoals being:

1. Enhanced

Our work for British Gas delivered an enterprise tool for British Gas engineers that provided a more personalised experience to enable boilers to be tted more easily. The app led to a 15% increase in customer satisfaction and a rise in cross-selling of new boilers of 1%, contributing £3m in the rst year.

2. Blended

The app we created for The Share Centre provides customers with all the support, guidance and information they need while offering a seamless link through to a broker for advice.

3. Unique

We brought together all the parts of the AA business into one single app, providing a purpose-led offer for customers rather than digital first for the sake of it. The AA’s digital offer is now led by the membership and delivers unique offerings that only the AA could provide.