Why 'CX' Is the New Black

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A ShackBurger, french fries and soft drink at a Shake Shack restaurant in Bridgewater, N.J.
A ShackBurger, french fries and soft drink at a Shake Shack restaurant in Bridgewater, N.J. Credit: Ron Antonelli/Bloomberg
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Likely the most tweeted quote from last month's ANA Masters of Marketing conference came from Shake Shack VP of Marketing Edwin Bragg, as he wowed audiences with the hypergrowth story of the burger-and-shake sensation.

"The bigger we get, the smaller we need to act," Bragg said.

Shake Shack acts small because every aspect of its brand is about the experience it provides customers. From the ingredients it chooses to the community-focus it places on every decision -- like providing phone charging stations at a construction site for a new location -- Shake Shack has brought customer experience to the fore.

But as Edwin charmed the crowd with the tale of how a hot dog stand that opened twelve years ago has become a global brand that grew revenue by 50% last year, one key ingredient was seemingly missing -- advertising.

How could that be? The answer may lie in a 2014 Gartner survey suggesting that "89% of companies expect to compete mostly on the basis of customer experience, versus 36% four years ago." That is an astounding shift.

The reasons for this focus on customer experience, or CX, are twofold.

First, advertising at scale has gotten harder. Yes, ads still work when people see them, but it's simply harder to reach a mass audience today. Even the NFL has lost its teflon and seen its ratings plummet.

Second, people are constantly connected, and rely on one another more to make decisions about brands more than ever before. Consumers place far greater weight on the opinions of one another than they do on what brands tell them.

That means marketers need to invest more in getting consumers to fall ga-ga in love with their brands to build loyalty, evangelism and preference to drive sales. In lieu of an easy way to hammer audiences over the head with paid media, marketers have seen an increasingly urgent need to get people to have positive opinions -- and conversations -- about their brands.

Good CX gives people positive opinions about your brand. Amazing CX gives people a reason to shout from the rooftops and Facebook walls about your brand.

This is how great brands are built today. Shake Shack is a prime example. So is Tesla, which has re-imagined the experience of buying a car. Or Netflix, which has invested millions in recommendation engines to connect you with the content you are most likely to love. Or Airbnb, which has disrupted an entire industry based on the idea that where you sleep when you travel should be an experience, not just a bed and a dresser.

Understanding all this is one thing. Delivering on it is another entirely. While business leaders may see the importance of CX, only 37% have a formal plan to fix it. Many simply don't know where to begin. Here are some ideas to start you off.

Great CX starts with insight. Many marketing organizations have had limited success into their investments in CX because they confuse innovation with Shiny Object Syndrome. Using the latest and greatest technology may help you learn about that technology, but it frequently does not provide an improved experience for your customers. Instead, brands should ask themselves, "What problem am I solving for my customer?" Viewed through that lens, investments in CX can be certain to enhance the experience people have with your brand.

Experience doesn't live in silos. Your customer's journey with your brand doesn't exist in silos -- neither should your thinking. Resist the temptation to ask, "What is our mobile strategy?" or digital strategy or social strategy or VR strategy or whatever-comes-next strategy. To be effective, an omni-channel CX should be a reimaging of the customer journey, based on insight. It can also be a tool to solve business problems.

People experience stories. Just because advertising is harder, doesn't mean storytelling is a thing of the past. In fact, it's importance is as great as ever. It's just being done with a broader palette and a wider canvas. Last month's ANA event was filled with brands as diverse as American Greetings, Georgia Pacific and World Wrestling Entertainment, all of whom shared examples of content they had produced that worked wonders building brands and an emotional relationship with customers. Some of that content had been cut into 30-second TV spots, others hadn't. But all of them were part of the experience customers had with those brands, and were critical to their success.

To my delight and surprise, the Masters of Marketing summit was refreshingly devoid of the plumbing issues -- ad tech, transparency, data -- that seem to dominate so many industry conversations. Rather, it was almost completely focused on the importance of creative to help brands connect with consumers.

The big difference today is that the term "creative" can apply to every touchpoint of your customers' experience. With it, you can build love, desire and customer loyalty.