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Strategically Separating Brand Experience from Brand Image

Brand Management

by Kenneth Rudich

A new normal has recently arisen across the business horizon – namely, the subtle but real distinction that now exists between the terms brand experience and brand image.  Though once regarded as fairly interchangeable, they really aren’t anymore.  Contemporary brand management has nudged them apart just enough to give each a nuanced relationship to the overall branding objective.

Branding Strategy

The brand experience is the degree of fulfillment a customer gets from actually using a product or service.

The brand image, meanwhile, is the sum of what people think about, know about or associate with a brand.  It’s focused on the larger identity and reputation.

Let’s look at a deliberately obvious example of how this new normal can come into play.

Say we have two services competing side-by-side and they both offer an equally agreeable brand experience as per our definition.  If this was the only basis for deciding which to use, how would you go about the business of making a choice?  Maybe flip a coin?

But what if one is known to associate with people who hurt the quality of life in the community where you live, and the other is given to supporting causes that help to improve it?  Would that change your perception of each, and would it impact your decision about who to choose?

In this scenario, it hardly strains the imagination to assume a reasonable person would find one unworthy of support while the other merits full consideration.  Though equal in their ability to strictly satisfy a need, the contrast in perception that emerges as a function of the brand image makes them stand apart.  It does so by providing additional relevant information for people to assess.  The result is a window of opportunity for gaining crucial separation.

Of course, this sort of scenario, in all its many variations, has been around for a long, long time.  The tendency for people to indulge in some kind of comparative analysis — be it as obvious as this one or considerably more subtle and subjective — then form an opinion and share it, is as common to modern consumer behavior as are leaves to a tree.  At the same time, however, it’s never been as animated as it is today.  In this age of exuberant online interaction, information spreads both faster and on a larger scale than ever before — and not by just a little bit but exponentially.  As it turns out, this one characteristic alone has ushered in a whole new set of dynamics to be dealt with in the course of fashioning a brand.

Let’s look at a few general rules of thumb that tend to govern present day brand management.

Modern Brand Management

First, the actual hands-on experience is still responsible for establishing the core foundation of a brand.  A good brand experience, then, is an absolute must.  Without it, the brand image will be doomed before it even has a chance to leave the starting gate.

But a good brand experience may not be sufficient by itself.

One byproduct of the exuberance for interaction involves finding ways for getting people to genuinely care about the brand.  They could be prospects, customers, stakeholders or anyone else of material importance.  An enterprise that relies on a good brand experience to be enough runs the risk of overlooking an untapped opportunity to create an even stronger bond with them.  In the context of the new normal, we can say the brand experience is not exactly subordinate to the brand image – it is, after all, indispensable – but it’s not exactly equal either.  Think of each as resting at different points along a continuum as shown in the graphic at the top of this post.

The space that sits between good to glow is what makes the brand image differ from the brand experience.  It presents an opportunity to fortify the brand in a manner that stands distinctly apart from the brand experience, yet also reinforces it.  When artfully executed it makes the brand seem more human and humane, and it invites prospects, customers and stakeholders to more fully and passionately embrace it.  The highest accomplishment to be sought with them is to win what is commonly referred to as brand ambassadors or brand advocates.  But the ultimate aim of all is to be regarded as a valued member of every community the enterprise touches within its ecosystem – regardless of whether the enterprise is local, regional, national or global in scale.

This facet of the new normal makes it mandatory for an enterprise to be mindful of the broader reputation that embodies everything it is and does.  The higher purpose of the brand image is to add another layer of endearment, one that solidifies its position in the minds of those who matter most.  Going from good to glow can aid a strategy by serving several key objectives.  It can:

  1. Deepen the perceived value of the brand and therefore make it more embraceable.
  2. Grow the brand by enlarging the circle of awareness, interest and acceptance for it.
  3. Foster a buffering effect for staving off the competition; for diffusing the appeal of substitute products and services; and for dampening any possible fallout that can happen from a stumble with the brand experience.

Small Investment, Big Dividends

The good news is that there are numerous resources, options and opportunities available for getting this done.  The even better news is that they can be configured to fit within the constraints of almost any budget, be it large or small.  In fact, the only real danger is to underestimate – or worse, completely ignore – the wisdom of constantly striving to build a better brand image.  As a Zen Master reportedly once told his students, “All of you are perfect and you could use a little improvement.”  Similarly, even a brand that is seemingly perfect could use a little improvement.  To think anything less is to perform a disservice to it.       

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