THE BLOG
06/27/2014 02:04 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2014

How to Put Experience Back Into 'Consumer Experience'

"Consumer experience" is one of the big buzzwords in today's marketing lexicon. But what does it really mean and what comprises consumer experience?

Most marketers plan for how best to have consumers experience the company's brand, and have the consumer do so in a way the marketer wants consumers to experience it. Given the way brand actually works, perhaps this is not the most valid focus. Moreover, this focus assumes an amount of control that marketers no longer really have in the current digital-mobile context.

First, the essence of branding is no longer the product as brand, with the company's brand as the ultimate referent. Nowadays, people are more attracted to brands that serve as a venue for an individual's own self-expansion. "ME-as-brand" is now the base coin of business success. The emphasis has turned 180 degrees, from product to people.

Personal Authenticity

The idea is, if the product-as-brand can be viewed as a challenge and provocation to bringing forth some latent aspect of a person's idea of self, then that is a brand experience in the truest sense of the term. What people value most now is a growing sense of who and what they truly are. That's a brand experience that increases customer loyalty, but a loyalty that stems from a loyalty to one's own idea of self, and not first-and-foremost to the product. Personal authenticity is the prize possession.

Here are two examples of the customer experience that demonstrate today's definition of value as peoples' quest for authenticity:

Listen to an iPhone owner's monologue: "The iPhone, like Apple, is a circle; it's smooth and it glides. It's easy and makes me feel I can do things more easily and do more. All other phones and network providers are a box; they have corners and squares, are highly structured, have too many rules, and are too technical and linear. The iPhone helps me be a better and bigger me."

Similarly, a recent purchaser of a Montblanc Fountain Pen, said: "I've wanted to buy a great fountain pen for as long as I can remember, but never had. Despite the economy, or maybe because of it, I thought I should buy one now. I did and I'm so happy. The Montblanc feels so sensual, so luxurious in my hand. I think better writing with it. It helps me get down to my deepest thoughts and feelings. I find 'me' with this Montblanc in hand."

Turning Off Your Auto-Pilot

The underlying key to customer experience is having an experience that helps nudge a person out of their habitual routines of behavior, so they, in effect, unplug from auto-pilot.

Today, life is fast; life is complex. There is no off-stage anymore, and everything is plucked while still green and hard. Add to that, nothing is all of one piece any longer.

In this context of too fast and too complicated, it is typical in each moment's press of "there's-so-much-to-do" that we go on auto-pilot. In a defensive mode, we stay on the surface of experience, go for the efficient and stereotyped routine and hunker down... until the next moment, living life as a series of staccato "nows." The result: Life becomes disembodied and disjointed.

When we're on the job, we tend to live an extensive -- but not an intensive -- life. It's emblematic of our time-pressured workdays that we skim over the top of many tasks, flit from one thing to another, never going deep into anything. Workers hardly ever have the opportunity to discover something new about what they are doing or what they each are. The gap between what one does and what one is grows larger with each tic of the clock.

The rub is that life is short. In a flash, days turn into years, and years into half an expected life span. And too easily, we become separated from our own true nature. Overly vigilant and responsive to the rapidity of external demands coming at us 24/7, we lose track of who we are internally. Our lives shrink. People know this. Yet, given the onslaught of time, we accept less than who we are and what we could be.

The Indispensable Aspect

Any consumer involvement that aids in bringing a person out of that mundane numbness can be conceived of as the ultimate customer experience. Anything that opens up a person, taps into their sense of curiosity, and immerses them in feeling, is what people really go for. Something new, something surprising, something spontaneous, anything that stirs up emotions and memories, and let's people see their familiar in a new and bigger way is the sine qua non of life and of business.

Putting experience back into 'customer experience' means satisfying a hunger while at the same time stimulating a new hunger -- a new hunger that comes from peoples' expanded sense of self. When business thinks about that -- instead of cramming people into experiencing a company's product, store, or online display -- then sales will rise, and more importantly, so will people's vitality.