As we improve our understanding of how consumers and B2B customers make choices, it is clear that emotional elements of the brand experience are just as important as the rational and functional elements in driving preference, loyalty and advocacy. .
According to research by Forrester, in 94% of the industries that they studied, emotion - how an experience makes a customer feel - trumps both ease and effectiveness as the dimension of customer experience that has the most impact on loyalty.
Emotion is linked directly to customer engagement, which is increasingly illusive – for many brands, its showing signs of decline. In order to attract and hold customer attention in an increasingly fragmented digital world, brand experiences and customer journeys need to be quick and easy, as much as they need to be compelling and memorable.
Brand managers may well use a range of metrics to manage acquisition and retention, but they could quite possibly benefit from guiding principles on how to shape initiatives that can bring the brand experience to life in ways that ensure that engagement is balanced with convenience.
Introducing Affordances And Rituals
Affordances and rituals are two principles behind brand experience design that can balance the need for effective and efficient brand interactions with efforts to create memorable and meaningful experiences for customers. Affordances can reduce effort in brand interactions while brand rituals can build engagement.
• Make my life easier - Affordances are design cues in the brand experience that make interactions intuitive. They make it easy to understand how things work and can reduce customer effort and streamline the customer journey.
The concept of an affordance was coined by the perceptual psychologist James J. Gibson in his seminal book The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. In 1988 the concept was introduced to the human-computer interaction community by Donald Norman in his book The Psychology of Everyday Things. A major update of the book, The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition, was published in 2013.
“...the term affordance refers to the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used. […] Affordances provide strong clues to the operations of things. When affordances are taken advantage of, the user knows what to do just by looking: no picture, label, or instruction needed.” (Norman 1988, p.9)
Experience design is growing in appeal as a way to win customer attention. This is one of the key secrets to the success of the Apple eco-system, and design thinking itself is part of the current zeitgeist to innovate through designing branded experiences. Affordances are design elements that make products and services easy to use, and are increasingly applied in digital transformation by user experience (UX) specialists as part of efforts to improve performance on human-computer interaction (HCI) and human-centred design (HCD).
Many digital interactions become automated or personalised to make customers’ lives easier. In many cases it is desirable to simplify customer touchpoints, reducing complexity and cost. The net effect is that highly intuitive design attracts customers. Simplicity is often the ultimate sophistication, increasing aesthetic appeal as well as reducing clutter and cost to serve.
However, simplicity and ease of use is seldom sufficient to build loyalty and advocacy.
A key reason why customers often leave brands is that increased customer effort has caused frustration. On the flipside, slick and highly effective interactions may remove customer effort but become transactional or even automatic over time, customers may rely on a brand but focus their attention elsewhere on brands that they care about more or that they deem to be more meaningful in their lives.
• Make my life richer - Rituals are powerful vehicles that can be tapped into or created to build brand engagement. Rituals go beyond habits to tap into emotion, meaningfulness, personal and social identity. All of these are increasingly recognised as important human-centred elements of customer-brand relationships. The potency of brand rituals is their ability to influence behaviour across a social group. The behaviour becomes emulated, repeated and shared, often through social media.
Establishing brand rituals is a key opportunity for brands to build emotional engagement within their category and with their brand. Existing social rituals can be borrowed or new ones can be created to develop engagement. Brand rituals can build a narrative that creates demand and differentiates the brand through a meaningful experience.
The social norm of seeing a diamond engagement ring as a symbol of love is a brand ritual that was first established by De Beers and New York agency N.W. Ayer & Son in 1938. Before then the ritual of receiving an engagement ring was a custom from medieval times but not commonplace; during the Great Depression diamonds were only worn by the wealthy few. De Beers worked with its agency “to create a situation where almost every person pledging marriage feels compelled to acquire a diamond engagement ring." The ritual of giving a diamond ring to show commitment, crowned with the strapline “A diamond is forever” has probably evolved into one of the most successful and enduring marketing campaigns of all time.
Implications For Marketers
In the current wave of digital transformation, the great challenge for many brands is to bring the digital and physical worlds together seamlessly and in ways that make the customer experiences unique, rewarding and special.
When considering marketing ROI, affordances and rituals can be directly linked to measures of business profitability. Frustrated customers are the most likely to defect, but affordances that reduce customer effort can decrease churn and purchase dropout, which is why customer effort has direct links to resource allocation and cost containment.
On the other hand, rituals can build new brand associations in the minds of customers to grow the topline, bringing the brand to life in experiential ways that encourage others to replicate and repeat the ritual as a form of shared social identity.
Customer attention is the cornerstone of brand engagement and many brands require new ways to capture and hold attention. Customers are attracted to convenience and ease of use but it is really rich and memorable positive experiences that are desired and needed to make brands cut-though and stand out.
Broad conceptual principles help to clarify the priorities and actions that come out of measuring performance of customer focused initiatives. Affordances and brand rituals are two such principles that show promise in guiding the design of intuitive, effective and meaningful brand experiences.
 Burns, M, Strohmenger, R, (2014), Introducing Forrester's Next-Generation Customer Experience Index. Great Customer Experiences Create And Sustain Customer Loyalty, Forrester Report, June.
 Norman, D. (1988), The Design of Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books.