Beyond Advertising: The Brand as Experience

When was the last time you were pleasantly surprised by a business?  For me, it was in Starbucks.  As part of my Sunday routine, I walk my dog Gizmo.  After the walk, I put him in a bag and proceed to the nearby Starbucks.  Upon entering, I am greeted warmly by the partners (Starbucks' term for its employees).  "Good morning, Ms. Frances!" they all chime in.  But it doesn't end there.  After greeting me warmly, they add, "Good morning Gizmo!" whose head slightly sticks out of the bag.  How's that for delighting a customer?
As I make my way to the counter, I see an exciting range of handcrafted beverages featured in the menu boards, such as Caramel Frappuccino, Caffe Americano, Caffe Latte, Caramel Macchiato, Hazelnut Latte, etc.  The interior is warm and cozy.  The smell of fresh coffee together with the soothing music makes one want to stay.  It is no wonder that Starbucks has become a favorite hang-out among friends, business colleagues, or even individuals who just want to be someplace comfortable as they enjoy their coffee.
As I order my drink, it is served to me piping hot and with minimal wait.  As the barista hands me my drink, he has a genuine smile on his face as he tells me to enjoy my day.  The entire experience is inimitable and consistent.  It is the same experience in Makati, Quezon City, Singapore, or New York. Is it any wonder that Starbucks is one of the truly great brands in the world today?
What is a brand and what makes a great brand?  The definition of a brand has evolved from the traditional view, which holds that a brand is a company's name, logo, image, advertising, personality, reputation or trademark.  A brand is so much more.  According to Denise Lee Yohn in her bestselling book, "What Great Brands Do," a brand is a bundle of values and attributes that define the value you deliver to people through the entire customer experience, and the unique way of doing business that forms the company's relationships with all of its stakeholders.  A brand is what a company does, and how it does it.  Your brand is not what you say you are--it's what you do.  In short, the brand is experience.
As brands evolve from names of products to become personal expressions of customer values and lifestyles, the need for value-adding and differentiated customer experiences has grown.  Consumers are looking for experiences that complement their lifestyle and brands that reflect their aspirations.  And they are willing to pay a premium price for these experiences.
How does a company evolve from simply selling products and services to becoming an experience provider?  There are 3-legs of customer experience.  They are products, process, and people.  The questions you must ask in order to design a unique and compelling customer experience are the following:  What must be unique about your products and services?  How can your processes deliver your products and services in a valuable way?  What must be distinctive about your people? 
Starbucks does not sell products or services.  It sells a unique coffeehouse experience.  Let us look at the three legs of this experience.
Products and Services
Starbucks is the leading retailer, roaster and brand of specialty coffee in the world today.  Customers are able to customize their beverage order, with the handcrafted assistance of their barista (the Italian word for bartender).  Customization means satisfying each customer's unique expectations, and often involves choice of sweetener, type of milk, and various pumps of flavor. From its original single store, Starbucks has emerged as an unparalleled name that is virtually interchangeable with the word coffee.  It introduced words like Barista, Chai, Venti, and Frappuccino into our everyday vocabulary.  All other specialty coffee retailers have adopted many of Starbucks products and services.  Yet, it can be said that Starbucks does not really have a close competitor.  The Starbucks experience goes beyond its products and services.  A great cup of coffee is only part of the Starbucks success equation.
Process is the engine of quality service.  It is managing the steps in the customer interface to deliver the experience intended, consistently across geography.  To achieve this, solid processes and procedures are vital in daily operations.  In Starbucks, this operational focus ensures consistency for customer visits across all the stores.  Some examples of processes include basic line deployment of in-store staff, where one person is on the register, one stays on the bar, and one is floating around making drinks if there's a long line.  There are also checklists that include all the things that have to happen, like the cleaning of counters, making sure all the products are stocked, sanitizing the tongs, and making sure the pastry plates are always clean. Strict quality control measures free partners to look for new ways to deliver extraordinary experiences.
Employees in Starbucks are seen and called "partners," shareholders with a stake in the outcome of the company.  There is a profit sharing scheme with the partners that are directly linked to their effort and the success of the business enterprise.  In a stunning contrast to most Fortune 500 companies, Starbucks consistently spends more on training than on advertising.  The culture with its unique mission and values creates a positive, team-oriented workforce. The Starbucks leadership creates a powerful experience for its partners.  It is expected that partners will pass on the dignity and respect that they received from the leadership to their customers.
Starbucks has built its brand with far less advertising than most other companies of its size.  When customers rely on a consistent positive experience, they feel compelled to share their experience with others.  This creates an ever-growing customer base through word-of-mouth.
Great brands become great not through what they say, but what they do.  They earn our love and loyalty not by talking about themselves in advertising or social media, but by creatively designing and consistently delivering great experiences.

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About the Author 

Frances Yu is the former Chief Retail Strategist of Mansmith and Fielders, Inc. For more information, please email
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