Fiona Field examines the experience versus expectation gap and how premium brands can navigate choppy waters
Just recently I had a conversation with a friend on the expectations of a hotel stay living up to the experience. The person in question would turn up to her annual summer holiday with her family in tow and inspect the hotel room, while her husband waited to see if the room warranted the description. For her, the entire stay always came down to whether the expectation matched the experience.
If the expectations were high, often largely decided by an expensive price, the experience had to match and if there was a gap; it resulted in disappointment. In a world where customer experience is heightened, certain brands will flourish while others will flounder. We hold brands that charge a premium to a higher standard, whether it be an airline, supermarket, bank or a private label vs a brand.
What customers will tolerate largely depends on their perceived expectations. In the current climate, the sands are shifting. Kantar said consumers are likely to be in the market for trade-offs with 66 per cent of them saying they would swap a branded product if a private label item was cheaper. With shoppers facing a potential €453 increase to their annual grocery bills customers are primed for change.
Brand with a faithful following: Yvon Chouinard, billionaire founder of Patagonia, is donating his company to a charitable trust. Any profit not reinvested in running the business will go to fighting climate change. The label amassed a cult following due to sustainability moves like guaranteeing its clothes for life and offering reasonably priced repairs. It is famous for its ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ ad asking consumers to consider costs to the environment.
Necessity is the mother of invention and just like Covid; the energy crisis, supply chain challenges and new consumer priorities will drive change faster. To protect and grow market share, brands must know their customers and their expectations. The higher the premium placed on a brand, the challenge is understanding the customer’s desired service level to ensure expectations are met.
How well does your product live up to its expectation? Is your brand living up to its promise is a question that should always be top of the agenda? If there is a gap between expectation and experience, consumers may question their loyalty. An example of that was the demise of Cadbury’s pink snack. Back in 2013, this once popular treat had its very existence threatened on the production line.
Instead of completely delisting it, Mondelez decided to lose one of the Cadbury chocolate wafers. Maybe it was felt that the reduction in price would be enough to halt declining sales but what must not have been considered was the experience the consumers had in being deprived of the last chocolate finger. Less than two years later, Cadbury’s pink snack was gone, dropped entirely.
As many brand owners grapple with spiralling energy costs it is a timely reminder of unintended consequences, when solving one issue can result in creating a larger problem. Is your brand purpose adequately defined? To fully understand and appreciate the gap between brand expectation and experience, marketers must get to grips with what shapes these consumer expectations.
Over the last number of years many brands and companies have redefined and reshaped their company values, vision and their brand promise. A prime example of being true to the company vision is outdoor apparel maker Patagonia, whose mission is “we’re in business to save our home planet”. Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard recently announced he was giving away the company.
Chouinard founded the business 49 years ago to tackle climate change and forfeited ownership of the brand, valued at $3 billion. While this might seem like an extreme example, Patagonia had a long history of leaving customers in no doubt in how they live up to expectations.
Consumers today expect a seamless omni-channel experience that reflects where they are in the customer journey. Often the gap in experience versus expectation can pave the way for new brands. One of the biggest mistakes made by brand owners is not adapting quickly enough.
For many larger and more established organisations, it can often be the politics of navigating siloes in the business and competing priorities that can slow this critical progress. It is worth reminding ourselves of the many start-ups whose very existence is determined by exploiting potential deficits in the gap between consumer expectation and experience.
In these challenging times when people are in the market for value, marketers must go further to address any brand experience deficits and build on the positives. As Henry Ford once said: “If you do what you have always done, you will get what you have always got.” Now is the time to evaluate how your brand is shaping up in a world where experience truly matters, before someone else does.
Or, in other words, mind the gap.
Fiona Field is managing director of OMD Ireland; firstname.lastname@example.org