Why Experiential Is the Heart of Branding

Brands Need to Create a Human Connection with Consumers

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At the beginning of each semester at NYU, I (Bob) show a picture of the Pillsbury Doughboy to my mostly international students and ask, "Does this make you hungry?"

Invariably they laugh nervously and answer, "No."

I go on to ask, "Does this make you think of family or getting together with loved ones during a holiday?"

This time they laugh even harder and again answer, "No."

The reason I run this experiment is to impress upon them this simple point about branding: Even the most carefully crafted and well-stewarded brand imagery is completely meaningless without experience. And so, even the beloved Pillsbury Doughboy communicates nothing unless mom used to make Pillsbury crescent rolls for Thanksgiving dinner.

The trouble is, we've lost sight of this fact in advertising. In far too many campaigns we still treat the ad as the beginning of the consumer journey. We believe that a clever ad grabs attention and creates desire, starting a cascading series of events that leads to a purchase. But as we can see from the Pillsbury example, as well as the examples of any number of other brands, the ad's purpose is mostly to reinforce and build upon an existing experience. Essentially, leading with the ad concept often ignores a crucial step of the branding process, which is to craft personal, shareable experiences with our products that nurture and grow lasting affection for our brand.

I (Saul) recently read an article written by comedian and filmmaker Mike Birbiglia talking about making it as a "small deal" in Hollywood. In the piece he offers this key insight: "Cleverness is overrated and heart is underrated." The same can be said for where we have netted out with building brands. Instead of building customer relationships based on the heart, we do clever things in ads that are quickly forgotten.

It's like we're all in a Tinder mindset. Advertisers all want to "swipe right," get a moment of glee, then move on to the next conquest. Without creating a human connection between the brand and consumer there is nothing more than a notch on a belt in the form of a meaningless engagement. Even transactions become commoditized without careful stewardship of the customer's experience.

The most troubling thing about all of this is that adding heart to a brand isn't even all that hard. Picture yourself at the airport and finding out your flight has been delayed three hours. Now imagine an airline rolling out a giant TV and saying, "We know this sucks but maybe watching Ghostbusters will make it better." Not everyone is going to love the movie choice, but they will feel differently about the brand because of the experience, and people flying other airlines will wish they had chosen this more proactive carrier.

Pop culture brands like Lego and the NFL already understand how important experience is, and that has contributed to their fanatical customer base. Lego has had a presence for years in places like Comic Con International and the NFL has hosted "Fan Expos" around the Super Bowl. Now both brands are launching their own traveling roadshows in 2017, with the NFL even including non-NFL team locations for their events. The idea is to reach as many fans as they can and build out amazing experiences directly with consumers. These experiences then enhance existing enthusiasm for the brands, which in turn make other ads and promotions that much more effective.

When you add something for people to see, hear, taste and do at the forefront of your messaging, you are creating a positive memory that is much more powerful than an ad alone. It becomes a moment in time that participants will enthusiastically remember and talk about. And, it's a heart-felt connection to your brand that will make consumers more receptive to your messaging every time they see your ads in the future.

Yes, some brands are universally known at this point and need only advertising to generate continued awareness. However, we challenge the other 99% of brands out there to put your ad, logo and mascot in the hands of an international student for a dose of perspective. You may find that your ubiquitous baking empire and the cultural icon representing it bring little more than a smile and a dismissive laugh -- at least until you feed them a cinnamon roll.

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