In her 1978 book, Decoding Advertising, Judith Williamson wrote that the primary task of brand communications was to build “empires of the mind”– a fitting analogy for the herculean task most brand managers now face. And, like empires whose borders have expanded well beyond their means, so too has the volume of customer touchpoints across both digital and physical experiences.

Consumer demands, digital transformation, the shrinking distance between content and commerce, and expanding communication channels have made the role of the modern brand manager difficult. Each new innovation adds more layers of service experiences, more media channels to manage, and the need to ensure that customers experience a seamless transition from brand touchpoint to touchpoint, meaning brands are now only as good as their weakest touchpoint. The question is, how do brand managers effectively prioritize shifts in consumer and competitor behavior while looking to gain a competitive advantage?

It’s been well documented that emotion is a driver of brand choice. Unlocking emotional responses at purposeful moments along the customer journey has the power to create positive brand experiences that impact brand performance. In this scenario, how emotion is evoked affects not only consumers’ perception of the experience but how the brand is remembered.

Understanding the role emotion plays in brand choice and its role in how it can shape the interactions with a brand helps to give brand managers a unifying approach to identifying and designing brand experiences. To get there, let’s set the foundation for how brands are built in the minds of consumers.

Defining the empire

Brands are built through a network of emotions, knowledge, and memories. Together, they form one’s sense or meaning of a brand. The larger the network of connections between experiences, emotions, and involvement, the more meaning and more affecting personal experiences become.

To borrow from William Moran, this “perceptual universe” is defined by the many ways a customer experiences a brand, while the emotions evoked at each interaction form the interstellar matter that drives brand choice. So, while emperors build empires, brand managers build this perceptual universe. To approach architecting this matter, brand managers must next understand the relationship between emotion and memory.

Understanding the role of emotion and memory in brand building

Our emotional response determines the amount of attention we give the stimuli, what our conscious response will be, and most importantly, how it will be stored in our memory. Brand managers stand a better chance of getting noticed and remembered if we can link our message or interactions to a meaningful emotion, related to our brand.

As researchers Marc Herz and Katja H. Brunk found, “an individual’s brand knowledge and prior experiences with a brand largely influence his/her attitudes and behaviors in the marketplace, making brand memories a key driver for brand equity.”

While emotions are key to how brands are stored in our brains, how we have those experiences impacts our response and, subsequently, how we perceive the event. In the case of memory, our memory is differentiated between semantic memories and episodic memories. Most advertising and communication efforts are assigned to semantic memory (brand identity, features/attributes, brand history). Episodic memory is often a result of brand experiences (product usage, service interactions, time, and autobiographical experiences).

What Herz and Brunk’s work, along with others’, have shown is that memories of events – brand experiences – are stronger predictors of brand affinity. And while episodic memories are more difficult to shape, the ability for brand managers to have influence in the outcome of impactful interactions enables a better opportunity for building key associations and differentiation. This gives us ample evidence to suggest that purposely designed brand experiences that are meant to evoke specific emotions can offer unique ways to reinforce your brand along the customer journey.

To gain a competitive advantage using brand experiences, brand managers must understand what emotions drive their customers’ decision-making and align it with specific brand experiences that communicate key differentiators. Not only should this reinforce how important emotions are to attracting and retaining customers but also encourage us to think deeper about brand building.

So how do we get there?

Identifying and designing brand experience

Nearly a century ago, philosopher John Dewey, set brand managers up with a pretty good way to conceptualize experience. Dewey argued that an experience is part knowledge and understanding of one’s environment coupled with perceiving through one’s senses.

Knowledge and understanding are more often shaped by the brand and the customer, as interactions take place and brand communications are interpreted. Perception is shaped by brand behaviors, taking the form of brand communications, service experiences, and design. Thus, the crucial task is to identify the right (or most impactful) touchpoints and design brand experiences that leverage the correct combination of communication, service experience, or design.

Four steps to building brand experiences

Map all touchpoints and focus on foundational brand experiences
The first step is to map out all possible touchpoints or interactions across the customer journey and identify touchpoints that are more likely to shape perceptions and attitudes – starting with opportunities that affect episodic memory. Once the journey has been mapped and key touchpoints identified, understand the primary “job-to-be-done” at those points. In retail, for example, how customers interact with your product pages could be a major brand experience. In this case, the goal or jobs-to-be-done, may be the ability to filter product selection quickly and seamlessly.

Determine proposition or positioning

Next, identify how your brand is uniquely positioned to offer a viable solution and what value the customer will get out of purchasing your product or service. This messaging should be the bridge between the brand experience and the emotion tied to it.

Define what emotions should be evoked

As you’re determining your proposition/positioning, work in parallel to determine the exact emotions you wish to be evoked. Ensure that those emotions are anchored in a way that connects the experience to the brand – the key to positively affecting brand memory.

Understanding that people want to get out and do more with their lives, Land Rover Experience Centers combine their technology and engineering proposition with a tactile experience that helps unlock customers’ sense of adventure. These test drive experiences that marry a specific message with an emotional experience communicate the brand’s championing of exploration through engineering. Land Rover is then able to reinforce that message through mass marketing and advertising.

Decide which levers to pull

Finally, which levers – brand communications, service experience, or design – should be used to achieve the greatest impact. Depending on the touchpoints you’ve identified, from UX to service experience, you may need to rely more heavily on one “lever” over the others. As it relates to in-store experiences, there’s no better moment to impact the perceptual universe than during a trial.

In 2017, Lululemon opened community-based experiential stores in select cities. The stores featured a meditation room, a sweat studio, and a fuel bar – all opportunities to try on gear but a way for the brand to strengthen the association between usage and daily ritual. Through service and store design, the brand experience was meant to prime customers’ episodic memory. Customers “lived” a likely daily experience in clothes that made them feel confident and assured. The entirety of both the brand experience and brand communications lived under their #TheSweatLife brand platform, which anchors the campaign in the brand’s overall message of authenticity and attainment.

We often prescribe emotion solely for our big brand communications, yet there is a major opportunity to look beyond them as simply the only way to infuse emotion into our marketing efforts. And yes, “fame” and “emotion” (à la Field and Feldwick) are important from that perspective, but brand managers who purposely design and build emotional brand experiences have set a strong foundation to drive brand performance.

Cover image source: Ilona Frey