Leesa Wytock is what you might call an experienced leader of experience. Across various roles and industries, she’s managed to build a view on branding in a way that tugs at the roots (and heartstrings) of solid, strategic positioning. Her recommendations are evergreen, applying to both old- and new-age creatives, marketers, innovators, and business leaders. Below is a recent interview that we had with Leesa in which she unveils her thoughts on:

  • How to design an experience that fits, rather than being everywhere;
  • Customer listening and adoption;
  • Tangible steps for creating the behavior you’d like to see from your customers;
  • What being a “good” brand really means;
  • Designing high-impact mobile and social strategies.

Take a look at what she had to say…

Brandingmag: You recently stated, “Brands will need to think beyond creating experiences they want people to adhere to and start thinking about creating behaviors they want people to adopt.” Fascinating concept. Can you please elaborate and give a few tangible steps on how brands can create behaviors people want to adopt?

Leesa Wytock: It’s really about looking at the psychological behaviors of people and understanding it takes to make a truly effective experience. Instead of a brand creating an experience and saying, “This will be great if user x comes through and does a, b, and c” – if people could actually think about the behavior that they want others to adopt, if you go to the root action that you want people to take and work backwards, and then develop an experience around that, then that is going to be much more powerful and effective.

When you think about an experience, it really is about changing behaviors and influencing actions. That’s a very literal definition of what “interactive” means, but it’s more focused, it’s targeted, and it means that – when it comes to experiences and changing behavior – less is more. So, instead of being everywhere all the time, brands that start thinking about behaviors that they want people to adopt will be more targeted, effective, and streamlines, and will probably have less interaction with their customers or consumers, but potentially more powerful interactions.

An example that I was just thinking about is the Starbucks coffee app. I don’t actually use it, but I think that it’s a fascinating practice of this. Not only do they support your behavior (whatever it is that you get every day) and remain aware that their customers go to them in a kind of blind state (i.e., I go to the same place every day, get the same coffee every day), they actually build their system around simplifying and automating exactly that, which is great. You’re never going to not go and get your coffee because you don’t have your wallet on you, because you have your app.

Now, however, Starbucks is trying to break typical habits in a way that does not get in the way of the status quo. They’re doing this interesting thing where they promote new product lines in the app by using game design. They’ll offer extra points for trying new blends, for example. That shows an understanding of what drives people to sway from their usual drink order. If you’re into the system and are already feeding that beast by, for example, buying multiple coffees in a row to acquire more points, then they’ve done a very fascinating job of introducing new products in a way that plays into that system. I would be interested to see the adoption rate of how many people are actually using the products that are getting promoted within the app, but I think that that one is really taking it to an interesting level.

Amazon has changed the way we think about service. Signing up for Prime (without really caring about the packaging or if it’s the best deal) just to receive my packages within a day has set my level of expectations. Now, when I go anywhere in the world and have a fairly lovely, normal experience, if it doesn’t match this insane expectation we all have when it comes to receiving goods from them, then it’s already a letdown. When, in fact, oftentimes that product is going to be of higher quality, it’s going to be more eco-friendly from a shipping perspective. The introduction of the Dash buttons now makes it so that I don’t even have to log on to the website, I can literally just press a physical button. They really changed our behaviors in a way where, I don’t really know if it was necessarily intended to, but now it has fundamentally made us become totally reliant on it.

The fact that they, I believe, increased the price of being a Prime member – and it’s a significant amount – without blinking an eye. It’s so fascinating to me that from a brand. People don’t have a lot of brand love for Amazon, but they’re such a part of our lives, they play such a role, that their behavior just becomes accepted.

Bm: Can you give us a few tangible steps by which brands can create behavior?

LW: We’ll have clients come to us and say, “We need to improve our customer experience” or “We need to improve our sales experience,” and it’s usually about something convoluted that needs to be simplified, etc. And, when we start asking more questions, they begin to say things like, “We want to be known as the Uber of X.” People have these kinds of external ambitions… What we do in our first conversations with clients is break that down to find out what it actually is, what behavior it is that they want people to adopt. What do the clients actually want people to do? And then the conversation gets incredibly personal very quickly and, therefore, more authentic. Starting there, brands are beginning to think in a more authentic way about how they can interact with customers. So, that’s 1.

And, then, really it’s about focusing obsessively about the user and understanding (from that earlier comment) what are these behaviors, what are potential emotional, behavioral moments and triggers. It’s like a narrative. If you think about how people interact with things, it’s the momentum-building aspect where someone is then excited, their eyes now open to it, about the opportunity to take action. But then are you making it very simple for them to do it? It’s truly about coming at it from that perspective versus just make an experience in the hopes that people will adopt your service in a certain manner.

Bm: Reminds us of the AR-powered makeup trial experience that you now see at stores like Sephora…

LW: Absolutely. And it goes back to the experience being very user-driven. Another thing that brands have to do when deciding which behaviors they want consumers to adopt is to get quite analytical on them, test them, iterate, and watch. Oftentimes, what people are doing in moments or with experiences, with brands, or with products is not necessarily what they were designed to do or the original intent. Having that iterative approach, we are building in those feedback loops from the end-user or employee and it’s incredibly effective for clients to understand what behaviors they want people to adopt.

Bm: A few years ago, Target announced it will phase out some gender-based signs in its stores, specifically in the toy and bedding aisles. In a previous article you stated, “Target is doing what a good brand does.” In your opinion, what constitutes a good brand and what should good brands do?

LW: I’m going to answer the second question first and then I’ll tell you our criteria here for what constitutes a good brand. When I was talking about that a good brand is really about active listening and thinking versus reactive adjustment. It’s about listening to what’s going on out there, what the customer base is responding to, thinking of that as a brand (this is where it ties to brands having a very strong purpose and knowing the brand behavior that they stand by), and deciding is it the right move for them to do something or not. That active listening and thinking about what is going on constantly in society versus the tired, reactive adjustments that come a little too late to make a move. And it’s a lot of work for a brand. Starting with that really strong, core belief, center of gravity, and North Star – all the things that a good brand positioning does, it makes that part easier.

So, when I think about a good brand, I like to think about the modern-day version of brands – the version that isn’t just about colors and logos, but rather the experience that you have with a brand. We like to think that good brands are actually experience brands. So, when you think about what that means, you must think about your experience with them holistically. Again, sometimes people will say, “Oh, I think Amazon is a great brand.” But, then, we ask people to peel the onion a little bit and think about how they experience the brand. What is their awareness experience with that brand – meaning, how are they finding out about it in the world? What is that interaction like? Is it positive? Is it true to what that brand stands for? Then, we move into the customer experience: what is that brand doing for you when you become a paying or engaged customer, or however it is you’re interacting? And, finally, what is it like when you’re actually using that brand or living with it? Is the brand creating any kind of rewards for your loyalty? This last piece goes back to Spotify allowing people to connect with each other and creating this community of music lovers. The easy access it offers to people and curated music is bringing it to the point where, if you love music, being creative, and are really interested in being exposed to different kinds of music, then the brand has built a community that you can tap into.

Lastly, what is that employee experience? How are they treating their employees? What does that onboarding look like? How is it when you interact with an employee from that brand? We really look at it almost through all the stages. That, to me is a good brand. It’s an experience brand that ticks the box on all aspects of the experience. So again, going back to the Amazon example, I would argue that the user experience oftentimes…yes, the stuff comes fast, but the web experience is kind of typical. We all know the stories of what the employee experience is like there. It actually makes it kind of hard to really push on being an experience brand and rethink the one that holds up. I feel like it’s always the same five that everyone holds up as great brands, but we might want to think differently about that.

Bm: Do you think a good brand is also one that corrects, makes shifts, and takes responsibility quickly?

LW: Absolutely. On one side, it’s still wonderful that we are in a place where big corporate brands are adapting and embracing pride, equality, and all that wonderful stuff. That’s amazing because that was not the case 15 years ago. But, on the flip side, it goes back to brand authenticity and what you stand for. OK, Uber is going to change its app icon from a car to a rainbow, but it feels a little off. What are they actually doing? What do they actually stand for? Are they donating a percentage of proceeds towards charities that support trans kids? It goes back to what you stand for and what a good brand is: adapt quickly, listen to what’s going out there, and be really authentic about it, as well.

Bm: What are the key steps for brands to recognize when creating high impact social and mobile strategies or designing intuitive and engaging user experiences?

LW: The key to user experience is to have an idea, to have a hypothesis, and to try to break it. Thinking about what you want your consumer users to do and what you think it is that they want. Fact-check that idea whether it be through research, user testing, focus groups, etc. You can always break the hypothesis. Never go in with an assumption and then plan that out the whole way because, inevitably, and as I mentioned in my earlier comment, you’re not actually thinking about it from the user’s perspective. So, even the greatest ideas, great experience ideas, can often fall short because we’re making an assumption and just barreling ahead.

If you think about – as the simplicity company – when it comes to intuitive user experiences, it really comes down to what could it do and what should it do, and really having that laser focus of creating just a simple, impactful, strong experience. I’m sure you’ve heard these conversations where people say, “Oh, it could do this! And then it could do this!” People get naturally excited… The truth is that it could, but should it? Let’s test it, let’s break it, and let’s see what the right path is for moving forward.

That’s for simple and intuitive, and it leads into the impactful mobile social strategies. It may seem a bit counter-intuitive, but brands may need to pull back a little bit. I think that, right now, a lot of brands are everywhere – everywhere, as in every single way I want to interact with the brand, I could. And inevitably that’s just not sustainable; you’re not going to have meaningful impact or interactions with people when you’re just everywhere. If you’re everywhere, then you’re kind of nowhere, really, versus showing up in smart ways and maybe even more focused ways. This goes back to the beginning, to being very attentive to the user and the behaviors you want. It really helps to think about where and how you should show up, and to be very focused, calculated, and personal in those areas.

That is something that we try to push and I think that it may even be freeing for brands to not have to be everywhere. I think everyone is feeling a bit exhausted, thinking, “Do I really want to watch video content created by Coca-Cola?” I don’t know…probably not. But do I get delighted if I see a Share a Coke and it has my friend’s name on it? Sure, absolutely. That’s a nice moment of surprise at a point when I already want to interact with a Coke product (versus the previous example). It is this stripping-back, less-is-more, focused aspect that is going to lead to more impactful strategies.

Bm: In my article, 6 Dominant Branding Themes For A Savvy 2018, I stated, “The way brands interact with consumers will be greatly influenced by the use of artificial intelligence.” What are the best ways for brands to approach AI? Any tips?

LW: I think the first one is balance and ensuring that, as brands move into the space and experiment with it, they really understand how to retain those moments of empathy and connection when it matters most. The best AI, smart experiences are the ones that are a sum of all of our user input and kind of nothing more. So, look at the next learning service set and how it continues to replicate your own preferences over time, basically translating your personal habits into that seamless experience. Or even the next algorithms that constantly serve up more interesting content – and they do a really nice job of getting it right. Spotify does the same thing you with their weekly discovery playlists and it’s great. In general, it’s basically understanding the simple sum of my habits in a way the feels natural when providing me with new stuff.

Where it can go wrong is where it veers into the creepy. We need that balance or it’s frustrating. It’s all new and it’s making incredible advancements, but if you think about how the Google browser adapted and changed. Remember how you used to type in the search keyword, a plus sign, and then the keyword for it to pull up results? Google basically changed their behavior because they realized that people were just typing in questions. That made them change around the way in which you were interacting with the search browser.

Now, you go to things like Alexa and Ok Google, and it’s another way of technology adapting to humans. For brands to really get it right, we have to continue to understand not only the role that people want us to play in their lives, but also what are the ways that people are using this product? How are they talking to it? How are they being engaged with (or not being engaged with)? Just because we can do all of these things, doesn’t mean we have to right away. Let’s try to get a few things really right, learn from there, and see where we can go.

Bm: Trademark question: What’s next? For example, as it relates to brands and experiences?

LW: I think that we all end up saying kind of the same thing. But, these are some things that I’ve been curious about. I have three, half-baked topics that I think are interesting; I don’t necessarily know where they are going to go yet, but they’ve been top-of-mind for me.

The first idea (and I’ve hit on this before, but I find it really fascinating) is knowing your role: brands learning that it’s more about the role they play in our lives and respecting those boundaries. This idea of brands understanding the role that they play in my life and really embracing it, while delivering consistently good experiences. I actually think that attention will start to reward brands that comprehend the weirdly over-saturated world that we live in – the giant machine that we’re caught in. People are going to start to understand and embrace brands that provide value when asked and when needed, but not always on-demand. In other words, those brands that are a little bit more respectful regarding their roles in our lives.

The second one is this idea of spontaneity. We can do everything through a phone. The amount of data and technology out there allows brands and companies to get to know us to an nth degree. I often look around, especially in New York, and see how people are all on their phones constantly; there is no moment of spontaneity anymore, no five minutes of just zoning out and looking around. And I wonder if the newer generation is going to revert back, similar to how they’re adopting our terrible 90s fashion right now. I wonder if they are going to not want technology to learn everything about their lives.

Right now, we are losing some of our adaptability, along with the surprise and delight of knowing that everything in life is totally uncertain. And I just wonder if brands are going to start downplaying what we can know and maybe stop doing everything. I wonder if there is going to be some kind of…I wouldn’t say backlash necessarily, but I just think that the scale is tipped pretty significantly in one way. If you look at all the “hipster” ways of getting back into nature, I just wonder if there is going to be a whole new generation of people saying, “What did you guys do? What is going on here?”

This ties into my third point and my last one, which is this idea of calling a spade a spade. Newer generations do not fear calling brands out, boycotting them and saying, “This isn’t what I want.” If I think of my generation (or even the ones after and before), we were just saying, “Well, that’s corporate America.” We just had this very accepting way of how things work. Today, there is this wonderful up flow of people having a voice – because brands do have to listen. Going back to your point about whether good brands listen and react fast, this notion of being able to call people out on their things quite quickly is going to continue to grow and turn into, ideally, more authenticity for brands, more of them knowing where they fit in the world, more of them comprehending where they should and should not play. It could lead to a very interesting place. Not necessarily just corporate and social responsibility – yes that, but then also all the other aspects of a brand that make it altruistic.