A strong brand glows and has meaning. Starbucks, Apple, and Walt Disney World fit this description, and so do less fun-filled brands such as Southwest Airlines, MD Anderson Cancer Center, USA Insurance, and the United States Marine Corps. While the meaning of these brands is obviously different, their meaning is created in the same way: our experience.
We experience the world and brands through our senses – and make sense of what we have experienced using our brain to give it meaning. If this were not true, restaurateurs would not spend so much time creating just the right look, taste, presentation, aroma, and texture for a dish, nor would hoteliers insist that employees dress in a certain way, escort guests to where they want to go rather than simply point the way, or that the linens used have a specific thread count. Their objectives are the same: to align every element of the experience with its intended meaning, thereby, positively impress the customer. Experience-meaning alignment is central to a strong and glowing brand.
Making Sense of Our Senses
Sensation comes through our five senses – sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell – to tell us something is happening. Perception, however, tells us what is happening and what it means to us. Sometimes sensation and perception are lightning-fast processes that are mostly universal for us all. Think about accidentally touching a hot surface. You are aware something is wrong, and respond, before you feel the warning response of pain. However, in most situations, how we perceive our environment is unique. Think about entering a five-star hotel, or a fine restaurant. While we each smell, hear, and see the same things, how we interpret the meaning of these sensations can differ; hence, the cliché “perception is reality.” This nagging problem of differences in perception presents the major challenge to building a strong and glowing brand: How to build an experience that leads everyone to the same meaning?
Building predictable paths to meaning is something that brand builders can consciously use to enhance and shape a customer’s (or any other stakeholder’s) experience. A simple model illustrates the route from awareness that something is happening to understanding what is happening.Figure 1 Making Sense of Our Senses
Being aware that something is happening (e.g., “I see the sun on the horizon.”) but not understanding what is happening (i.e., “Is the day beginning or ending?”) is not a state that is well tolerated – people do not like ambiguity. Our intolerance of ambiguity leads to the creation of categories that are meaningful to us. Think about how you view time. You likely categorize the phases of your life in ways that give meaning to you (childhood, adolescence, years lived in a certain place or worked for a specific organization, and so forth). This brings order and context to our lives. Until we have our categories in place, we cannot make sense of our senses and, therefore, we have no experiences.
Let’s say I hear a tiger roar behind me; until I plug the roar into its context (e.g., I’m walking down a jungle trail versus I’m spending the day at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo), I don’t know whether to be scared senseless or thrilled. As brand builders we want to avoid placing our stakeholders in a situation where they are unsure of what they should be feeling. A brand built to last uses each of the five senses to deliver a precise and carefully crafted meaning. It is for this reason that leaders should map the experience they intend a stakeholder to have to the stakeholder’s five senses and ask themselves a few simple questions such as how is this sense engaged, what do we want this engagement to mean to the stakeholder, and how do we ensure that the intended meaning is consistently created?
Intentional stakeholder experiences are key to earning the active loyalty of your most valued customers. Building Active Stakeholder Engagement is based on the fundamental principle that people are most likely to value the relationships that value them. Check out our blog on cultivating active engagement to learn how leader’s can focus their efforts and build a strong brand.