Why you should sell your brand as an experience

How Starbucks engages all five senses to create a memorable experience and turn customers into brand advocates

Rajesh Srivastava

[Photograph by DAKALUK under Creative Commons]

Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced – John Keats

There can be several strategies to convert a customer into a brand advocate, but the first among equals would be to deliver a pleasurable experience to them. A customer who has had a pleasurable experience with a brand is likely to grow an emotional bond with it. And once that happens, the customer displays a ‘cultish’ following for it.

To identify strategies that can deliver pleasurable experiences, we’ll have to go back to the birth of the Product Economy at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

At that point, consumers bought the 'standardized' items produced and exchanged money for the brand. The Product Economy viewed this as merely a transaction. No more, no less.   

In many cases, consumers had to further 'invest' in the product to make it consumption-ready. It meant spending time behind it and adding features that enhanced convenience.

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Take instant coffee. After purchasing the product, a customer had to add water, milk and sugar, and heat the concoction before she could enjoy it. After consuming it, she had to invest additional resources in disposing of or cleaning the waste generated: the dirty utensils and other leftovers.

The Service Economy stepped in to overcome the shortcomings of the Product Economy. It presented customers with ready-to-consume products, and for offering this convenience, brands charged a premium. Customers, too, opened their wallets to pay for these additional conveniences. The Service Economy was an improvement over the Product Economy and was widely adopted by brands to gain competitive advantage.

Many industries wanted to shift from selling their brand as a product to selling it as a service to command a price premium and earn customer advocacy.

However, despite its myriad advantages, even a Service Economy has its drawbacks.

Take the case of a kiosk selling coffee. It serves us the beverage in return for money. Once we finish our coffee and move on, we forget about the service (coffee) that we just consumed. It is because the kiosk only provided coffee as a service and nothing more. There is hardly any attempt on the part of the kiosk owner to establish a relationship with its customer. She takes no initiative to ensure that the customer receives a service that brings her back for repeat business.

This is where the Experience Economy has stepped in. It seeks to deliver a service as an experience, so remarkable that the experience lingers and reminds the customer about the brand over an extended period of time, much after the brand has been consumed. It begins the process of forming a relationship between the experience provider and the customer. Over time, as the relationship deepens, it starts maturing into an emotional bond.

How do brands deliver a pleasurable experience? All human beings relentlessly pursue pleasure. And pleasure is experienced through the five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.

When the five senses are engaged and assaulted in unison, they heighten any experience.

Let’s stay with coffee. Starbucks is arguably regarded as the purveyor of the world’s best coffee. It achieved this status not by marketing coffee as a product--it would have been deemed an expensive coffee. Not by marketing coffee as a service--it would still be perceived as expensive. But by marketing it as an experience. This is achieved by assaulting all the five senses of its customers to generate fine memories, which linger long after the customer has consumed the coffee. So, the next time the customer wishes to have coffee, she will recall the pleasant memories and will be compelled to go to Starbucks to relive them.

No wonder Starbucks strives to assault all five senses to implement this strategy:

Smell (Aroma): Upon entering a Starbucks, the coffee aroma (smell) assaults the customer, reinforcing its image as the purveyor of the world’s finest coffee.

Sight: Starbucks is bathed in its house colour: green. Owning a colour improves brand recognition by up to 75 percent.

The barista welcomes each customer with a smile, making her 'likeable, confident and knowledgeable'. Would you not like to be guided by her in navigating through the menu?

The seating areas in Starbucks are designed to encourage lounging, to give a feeling of ample space, which alludes to a feeling of luxury. Due to a well-spaced-out layout, there is little danger of conversation being overheard by a neighbour, hence it also provides the comforts of a private space.

Sound: A barista is trained to greet a regular customer by name. There is no sweeter 'sound' in the world than our own name. The tone of the barista’s voice makes a guest feel welcome.

Typically, the barista asks a question that requires an answer in a full sentence. This enables a conversation to be started, the beginning of a relationship. For example, 'I saw you going through the menu board. What kind of coffee do you like?' instead of asking a question like, 'Would you like a coffee?' which can elicit a monosyllabic response or merely a nod, and the conversation cannot proceed ahead.

While taking an order, the barista will engage the customer in small talk. Coupled with the smile and the tone, it makes the person feel special.

The sound of a coffee machine in the background reinforces the core value of Starbucks being an expert in coffee.

When the order is ready, the barista calls out the customer's name. Again, it makes the customer feel special.

The 'silence' at Starbucks stores alludes to exclusivity, luxury and premiumness - all traits associated with the brand

A barista is trained to remember the previous order of a regular customer. This simple act makes the customer feel welcome.

Taste: Starbucks strives to personalize each and every order. The barista takes all inputs at the time of the order to ensure it is handcrafted to the customer’s liking.

In the unlikely case the customer is not satisfied with the taste and complains, the order is remade without any questions asked. This is part of the 'Just say yes to customers' policy, because Starbucks is not in the business of winning an argument with the customer but of delivering a pleasurable experience to them.

Also, a guest can request the barista for a taste (sample) of the coffee before they purchase it. This reduces post-purchase dissonance.

Touch: The feel of the coffee cup, the tray, the feel of the upholstery of the individual sofas for seating, the cutlery are all aimed at heightening the experience of touch.

Pursuing the experience strategy will provide a multitude of benefits. A partial list includes:

  • Ability to command price premium

  • Developing stronger brand loyalty, leading to brand advocacy

  • Greater retention and repeat business

  • Creation of positive buzz by the customers, leading to lowering of customer acquisition and lead generation cost

  • Enhancing the ability to up-sell, cross-sell existing and new services

Key Takeaways

  • A good experience using or consuming a brand/product enhances engagement with a customer

  • Key to creating a magical experience is working on all the senses of a customer

  • Creating a lingering memory of good experiences over time can turn customers into brand friends


If you have any questions mail us at askrajesh@foundingfuel.com

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About the author

Rajesh Srivastava
Rajesh Srivastava

Author and Visiting Faculty

IIM Indore

Rajesh Srivastava has 3 decades of corporate & academic experience. He has reenergised companies, including J K Helene Curtis Ltd., & nurtured brands like, Bagpiper whiskey, Royal Challenge whiskey, Blue Riband gin, Blue Riband Duet, Park Avenue range of deodorant & personal care products. He is part of the Visiting Faculty at IIM Indore. He is an alumnus of IIT Kanpur & IIM Bangalore. He is currently working on his first book.

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