"A brand is a promise." That grand old adage is not really right, especially not in an economy dominated by service businesses. Growing companies often get so caught up in the quest for better products and bigger markets to deliver on their "brand promise" that they pay too little attention to what customers feel and experience. That's a mistake, because the experience is where value creation actually happens, dominated by customers' resulting emotions.

"Marketers should be in the business of experience design," says Russ Klein, the exuberant CEO of the American Marketing Association. "That is where every business needs to start. The storytelling will follow from that."

We recently got into a conversation about brands with Klein, who was named "Advertiser of the Decade" by Adweek for his work with Burger King in the aughts. Now he is leading the AMA in an effort to redefine the work and scope of marketing.

Here's what he told us.

Promises, Promises

Sure, companies make promises. Come to Disney, "the happiest place on earth." Use FedEx, "when it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight." But a promise does not a brand make, any more than a logo does. Says Klein, "Most marketers have been in the business of promise-making. But a brand is really a set of stories about an experience--it is created in the head of the customer as he or she participates in whatever you have to offer."

That is especially true in services, where the act of purchasing doesn't result in a change of ownership. Hotels and shops, IT services, legal work, travel, banking--the specific business scarcely matters. When you summon a Lyft, the company owns the app and the driver the vehicle--but you own the trip.

A now-classic Harvard Business Review article called "Staple Yourself to an Order" showed executives how to improve operations by watching how orders are filled. Similarly, if you want to design and improve customer experience, you should hop onto a customer and ride piggyback for the duration of his journey with you.

First Impressions

That means starting with first impressions--because, after all, you get only one chance to make one. Most marketers are pretty good at first impressions, because, well, that's their business. Once the customer gets through the door, he or she becomes someone else's responsibility.

However, if you're designing experiences, you can't stop there--because the real business of brand-building has just begun. Nobel-Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Barbara Frederikson, and others have shown that memories of an experience are largely a function of two things: how it felt at its peak and how it felt at the end. The "peak-end rule" should tell marketers--and everyone else--to bring design thinking and marketing insight to bear on three things:

  • Figure out and design customers' peak experiences--the thing they remember most fondly. Is it that first view over the rim of the Grand Canyon? The "Mad Men" moment when Don Draper turns the poster board, reveals the ad's image, and speaks the tagline? Whatever it is--and it may be different for different types of customers--maximize its theatricality and make it become part of your company's identity.
  • Find the moments that can be dreadful and design them differently. These may be emergencies--a data breach, the website down. They might be moments of high intensity--when a customer is likely to be agitated or upset--when your client learns he is being sued, or when a policy holder calls from the side of the road after an accident. Or they may be preventable pain points. ("We are experiencing an unusually high volume of calls. We can call you back in approximately [beat] one hour and [beat] twenty-five [beat] minutes.") Whatever they are, whatever the cause, these are moments that will forever color your brand in that customer's mind.
  • Put your sales or marketing team in charge of complaints and customer care, which often are the last experience customer have with you. Call centers are too often outsourced to the lowest-price bidder or managed primarily for cost. Customer service ought to reinforce the reasons customers came to you in the first place--that is, it should speak as well of your brand as your ads do. Done right, a good last experience makes customers want to come back for a new one.