Online sales are reaching all-time highs as buyers become more comfortable with digital transactions — in 2021, for example, consumers spent a collective $14 billion online across Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
For businesses, the shift to online-first purchasing offers substantive potential, but also underpins prospective problems: As the number of digital product offerings ramps up, competition for customer conversions is also on the rise.
The result? A battlefield for brand experience. If companies can create a lasting positive impression among potential customers, they can drive sales and set the stage for long-term loyalty. But what exactly is brand experience? What does effective design require and what does it look like in practice? Most importantly, how do brands create experience strategies that deliver reliable results over time?
What is Brand Experience?
Brand experience is the lasting impression customers have of your brand. It includes thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and reactions to everything from direct marketing efforts to large-scale ad campaigns and specific product launches.
While brand experience is similar to user experience, it encompasses a broader perception of your brand at large. Where user experience speaks to the takeaways — positive or negative — of a user when they interact with your website or social media profiles, brand experience refers to the impression of your brand as a whole. Not surprisingly, positive user experiences inform better brand experiences (and vice versa) but the two are distinct concepts.
It’s also important to understand that brand experience is subjective. While it’s possible to create experiences that produce reactions along a generalized spectrum, individual users will have different reactions to your efforts. In practice, this means that no matter how carefully you curate brand experience efforts, there will always be customers who come away with a negative reaction. As a result, the goal isn’t to create a universal experience but rather to create one that resonates positively with the largest number of target customers.
Breaking Down Brand Experience Design
Just 39% of business decision-makers say their brand effectively resonates with prospective buyers. This is a problem: If customers don’t connect your brand with positive thoughts, feelings, and reactions, they’re less likely to remember your products and services when it comes time to make a purchase.
Worth noting? Neutrality isn’t enough. While negative impressions of your brand can drive customers away from your site, neutral impressions are just as problematic — even if consumers see your brand listed in search engine results or advertised online, the absence of a positive brand impression means they won’t seek you out over companies that offer better connective messaging.
So what does effective brand experience design look like? Four components are critical:
Perception forms a key part of the experience. This includes audio, visual, and tactical interactions that allow customers to connect a specific sense to advertising campaigns. In much the same way that particular smells can bring back memories of childhood experiences, brands that successfully merge senses with marketing can create connections that drive sales.
It’s also more likely that customers will walk away with a positive brand experience if they’re able to participate in some way rather than simply watch. This might include the ability to submit suggestions online or interact in real-time online question forums, or it could feature the use of physical installations that allow consumers to touch your product or provide direct feedback.
Generic marketing campaigns can produce steady returns, but personalization can help encourage connection across different customer segments. By leveraging both user-provided data (with their consent) along with social media interactions and other engagement data, it’s possible to create more personalized efforts that help create connections between consumer needs and current product offerings.
Brand experience can’t be all things to all people. Attempts to capture every consumer in every circumstance actually undermine experience-driven efforts — as a result, it’s worth selecting specific brand metrics such as positive social mentions or repeat purchases to prioritize.
Creating a Brand Experience Strategy
So how do you build an effective brand experience strategy?
First up is identifying areas where your current experience isn’t meeting customer expectations. Social media interactions and customer service calls can help pinpoint potential problems — if consistent concerns around brand interaction or reaction arise, this can help frame the foundation of brand experience strategy.
Next is targeting an area for improvement. While there may be more than one aspect of brand experience that could use a refresh or redesign, attempting to do everything at once can spread strategy efforts too thin and deliver less-than-ideal results. For example, you might choose to increase positive social mentions across specific channels such as Facebook or Instagram. While the eventual goal could be a larger social impact from initial contact to eventual conversion, easily-accessible social platforms provide an ideal starting point.
Effective measurement follows to ensure efforts are bearing fruit. In the case of our social media example above, this means tracking user views, reactions, and responses to social media posts along with the sentiment — positive, negative, or neutral — that goes along with them. This is also the time to explore and innovate by testing multiple strategies to see which one sticks. From video campaigns to personalized storytelling to marketing efforts all designed to elicit specific emotions, it’s worth finding that resonates with your customer base and then fine-tuning your efforts to deliver ideal outcomes.
Exploring Brand Experience Examples
- Red Bull
- Lean Cuisine
- Cadbury India
It’s one thing to talk about brand experience building, but it’s another to see it in action. Here’s a look at five brand experiences efforts that offer effective in-practice examples.
1. Red Bull
In 2012, the company went all-in on its tagline “Red Bull gives you wings by sending skydiver Alex Baumgartner 24 miles above the Earth’s surface to pull off the highest skydive ever recorded and become the first person to break the sound barrier during freefall.
While his record was broken two years later by an executive from Google, it doesn’t change the fact that Red Bull did something no one had ever done before and created a unique brand experience that aligned with its core marketing message.
2. Lean Cuisine
While healthy eating has taken off in recent years, messaging around this effort is often the opposite. With a focus on weight loss instead of overall health, many brands find themselves reinforcing harmful stereotypes that equate weight loss with personal worth.
Lean Cuisine’s #WeighThis campaign looked to change the narrative by placing “scales” around New York’s Grand Central Station that encouraged women to “weigh in”.
The catch? These scales were actually boards that let women write down how they would prefer to be measured — such as by their own persistence, accomplishments or efforts.
Even better? Lean Cuisine marketers were smart enough to stay out of the way. There were no samples on offer, no surveys to fill out; women simply saw the scales and interacted with them, in turn boosting Lean Cuisine’s overall brand experience.
Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty took a similar approach to Lean Cuisine but opted for the use of viral video that highlighted beauty of all types — beauty that goes beyond photoshoots and photoshop. The campaign earned praise for both its authenticity and efforts to help boost self-esteem among young girls.
By choosing emotional experience over a simple sales effort, Dove was able to better connect with its target customer base and boost overall customer loyalty.
Cadbury India opted for consumer suggestions in creating their new chocolate bar flavor. Customers were encouraged to visit the company’s dedicated chocolate bar platform that let them select ingredients and create a recipe. Cadbury then tried all suggested recipes and selected the best of those submitted.
By prioritizing interaction over simple reaction, Cadbury facilitated consumer connection and encouraged customers to view chocolate bar making as a collaborative effort rather than a corporate endeavor, in turn creating a community-based brand experience.
Canadian commercial airline WestJet has been running its “Christmas Miracle” campaign since 2013. It’s 2021 version sees the company asking people what they miss the most during the holidays — not surprisingly, many mention absent family members. WestJet staff then provide plane tickets to help loved ones reconnect, and the end of the video features a tearful reunion in progress.
Overall, it’s a feel-good experience designed to bring out emotions already close to the surface for many customers and in turn, boost the overall brand experience.
Building a Better Brand Experience
The right brand experience makes all the difference when it comes to cultivating long-term customer relationships. By understanding where current efforts don’t deliver, prioritizing areas for improvement and tracking engagement metrics over time, it’s possible to build a brand experience that boosts customer connection and encourages long-term loyalty.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in February 2016 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Local Pack Header Specificity Vanishes while Local Packs Downtrend
The author’s views are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.
In July of this year, Dr. Peter J. Meyers and I published a report analyzing an element of Google’s local results we termed “local pack headers”. About a month after publication, members of the local SEO community, like Colan Nielsen, began noticing that the extraordinary diversity of headings we had captured had suddenly diminished:
Today, I’m doing a quick follow-up to the manual portion of our earlier study in an effort to quantify and illustrate this abrupt alteration.
A total sea change in local pack headers
Between July and November of 2022, 83% of our previously-queried local pack headers underwent a complete transformation of nomenclature. Only 17% of the local pack headers were still worded the same way in autumn as they had been in the summertime. Here is a small set of examples:
In our manual analysis of 60 queries in July, we encountered 40 unique local pack headers – a tremendous variety. Now, all specificity is gone. For all of our queries, headings have been reduced to just 3 types: in-store availability, places, and businesses.
Entity relationships remain mysterious
What hasn’t changed is my sense that the logic underpinning which businesses receive which local pack header remains rather odd. In the original study, we noted the mystery of why a query like “karate” fell under the heading of “martial arts school” but a query for “tai chi” got a unique “tai chi heading”, or why “adopt dog” results were headed “animal rescue services” but “adopt bunny” got a pack labeled “adopt bunny”. The curious entity relationships continue on, even in this new, genericized local pack header scenario. For example, why is my search for “tacos” (which formerly brought up a pack labeled “Mexican restaurants”, now labeled this:
But my search for “oil change” gets this header:
Is there something about a Mexican restaurant that makes it more of a “place” and an oil change spot that makes it more of a “business”? I don’t follow the logic. Meanwhile, why are service area businesses, as shown in my search for “high weed mowing” being labeled “places”?
Surely high weed mowing is not a place…unless it is a philosophical one. Yet I saw many SABs labeled this way instead of as “businesses”, which would seem a more rational label, given Google’s historic distinction between physical premises and go-to-client models. There are many instances like this of the labeling not making much horse sense, and with the new absence of more specific wording, it feels like local pack headers are likely to convey less meaning and be more easily overlooked now.
Why has Google done this and does it matter to your local search marketing?
Clearly, Google decided to streamline their classifications. There may be more than three total local pack header types, but I have yet to see them. Hotel packs continue to have their own headings, but they have always been a different animal:
In general, Google experiments with whatever they think will move users about within their system, and perhaps they felt the varied local pack headers were more of a distraction than an aid to interactivity with the local packs. We can’t know for sure, nor can we say how long this change will remain in place, because Google could bring back the diverse headings the day after I publish this column!
As to whether this matters to your local search campaigns, unfortunately, the generic headers do obscure former clues to the mind of Google that might have been useful in your SEO. I previously suggested that local businesses might want to incorporate the varied local pack terms into the optimization of the website tags and text, but in the new scenario, it is likely to be pointless to optimize anything for “places”, “businesses”, or “in-store availability”. It’s a given that your company is some kind of place or business if you’re creating a Google Business Profile for it. And, your best bet for featuring that you carry certain products is to publish them on your listing and consider whether you want to opt into programs like Pointy.
In sum, this change is not a huge deal, but I’m a bit sorry to see the little clues of the diversified headers vanish from sight. Meanwhile, there’s another local pack trend going on right now that you should definitely be paying attention to…
A precipitous drop in overall local pack presence
In our original study, Google did not return a local pack for 18% of our manual July queries. By November, the picture had significantly changed. A startling 42% of our queries suddenly no longer displayed a local pack. This is right in line with Andrew Shotland’s documentation of a 42.3% drop from peak local pack display between August and October. Mozcast, pictured above, captured a drop from 39.6% of queries returning local packs on October 24th to just 25.1% on October 25th. The number has remained in the low-to-mid 20s in the ensuing weeks. It’s enough of a downward slope to give one pause.
Because I’m convinced of the need for economic localism as critical to healing the climate and society, I would personally like Google to return local packs for all commercial queries so that searchers can always see the nearest resource for purchasing whatever they need, but if Google is reducing the number of queries for which they deliver local results, I have to try to understand their thinking.
To do that, I have to remember that the presence of a local pack is a signal that Google believes a query has a local intent. Likely, they often get this right, but I can think of times when a local result has appeared for a search term that doesn’t seem to me to be obviously, inherently local. For example, in the study Dr. Pete and I conducted, we saw Google not just returning a local pack for the keyword “pickles” but even giving it its own local pack header:
If I search for pickles, am I definitely looking for pickles near me, or could I be looking for recipes, articles about the nutritional value of pickles, the history of pickles, something else? How high is Google’s confidence that vague searches like these should be fulfilled with a local result?
After looking at a number of searches like these in the context of intent, my current thinking is this: for some reason unknown to us, Google is dialing back presumed local intent. Ever since Google made the user the centroid of search and began showing us nearby results almost by default for countless queries, we users became trained not to have to add many (or any) modifiers to our search language to prompt Google to lay out our local options for us. We could be quite lazy in our searches and still get local results.
In the new context of a reduced number of searches generating local packs, though, we will have to rehabituate ourselves to writing more detailed queries to get to what we want if Google no longer thinks our simple search for “pickles” implies “pickles near me”. I almost get the feeling that Google wants us to start being more specific again because its confidence level about what constitutes a local search has suffered some kind of unknown challenge.
It’s also worth throwing into our thinking what our friends over at NearMedia.co have pointed out:
It could be that Google’s confidence is being shaken in a variety of ways, including by regulatory rulings, and local SEOs should always expect change. For now, though, local businesses may be experiencing some drop in their local pack traffic and CTR. On the other hand, if Google is getting it right, there may be no significant loss. If your business was formerly showing up in a local pack for a query that didn’t actually have a local intent, you likely weren’t getting those clicks anyway because a local result wasn’t what the searcher was looking for to begin with.
That being said, I am seeing examples in which I feel Google is definitely getting it wrong. For instance, my former searches for articles of furniture all brought up local packs with headings like “accent chairs” or “lamps”. Now, Google is returning no local pack for some of these searches and is instead plugging an enormous display of remote, corporate shopping options. There are still furniture stores near me, but Google is now hiding them, and that disappoints me greatly:
So here’s today’s word to the wise: keep working on the organic optimization of your website and the publication of helpful content. Both will underpin your key local pack rankings, and as we learned from our recent large-scale local business review survey, 51% of consumers are going to end up on your site as their next step after reading reviews on your listings. 2023 will be a good year to invest in the warm and inclusive welcome your site is offering people, and the investment will also stand you in good stead however local pack elements like headers, or even local packs, themselves, wax and wane.