Integrated brand thinking: From communication to customer experience

And thus, consumers will base their opinion of the brand not only on brand and marketing communications, but on the overall company behavior (including products, services and customer experience). The era of integrated brand thinking had arrived, the brand became a ‘concept that drives the business’formed the starting point for the overall company strategy and had definitively won its place in the boardroom.

Now science is sometimes accused of following practice, but in this case it was really the other way around. Franzen cites the McDonalds restaurant experience in 2008 as a shining example and was responsible for positioning Interpolis as a crystal clear insurance company in the Netherlands in previous years with FHV/BBDO. But with these and a few other exceptions, the vast majority of companies in the 1990s and 2000s were unable to truly integrate brand thinking into all facets of business and customer experience.

Integrated communication as a first step

In practice, integrated brand thinking turned out to be mainly consistent marketing communication: Campaigns followed each other based on a guiding idea, communication tools matched each other and the tone of the campaign was translated into e.g. newsletters, store communication or labor market campaigns. Difficult enough in itself – and often done incorrectly – but still mainly within the framework of the marketing communications department. In the most famous cases, the brand idea helped determine which products and services were showcased or marketed existing products and services with a renewed proposition. With ‘Hi Happy Hour’ (actually a repackaged off-peak rate) as a very successful example from FHV/BBDO. However, such examples are scarce. And the instances where the brand actually influenced product development, service and other operational business aspects that shape the customer experience are nothing more than a needle in a haystack. Labeled as ‘concept it inspires the business’, yes, but labeled as ‘concepts it driving the business’ turned out to be (so far) a utopia.

Limitations to integrated brand thinking

This is easy to understand from practice. After all, there are practical obstacles between dream and deed. Back then, innovation was still called ‘R&D’ and was the domain of white coats in sterile laboratories. Consumer durables such as car brands and consumer electronics could not simply adapt their products to the brand idea – bringing a new car to market takes 3-5 years. For retailers, the rollout of a new store concept cost only a few tons per Store. And FMCG brands, the kings of marketing, had only a very limited impact on the overall customer experience outside of the product packaging. Perhaps the only exception to this was the service providers, who were the only ones able to implement the brand experience in multiple facets of the business with flexible offerings and regular customer contact. It is therefore not surprising that the two examples above, Hi and Interpolis, both come from service providers.

What was left was a generation of brand and marketing managers who turned out to have less influence on the organization than they had hoped. As they sought to transform their organizations from a central brand idea and move the business higher on ‘brand maturity’ the ladder remained in practice an advertising and communication thing, while in most boardrooms people were mainly concerned about globalisation, scaling up and cost reduction. Brand thinkers’ ambition was often dismissed as naivety (“we have better things to do”) or pride (“who do they think they are”).

Focus on digital transformation

At first, digitization only seemed to facilitate this development. The first two decades of this century were dominated by digital transformation and data. Retail became e-commerce, marketing became measurable and the consumer slowly became a cloud of data points to be analyzed, exploited and optimized. CMOs had to learn new skills, hire new talent and implement new systems. And all this had to be recovered. In the past twenty years, ‘performance marketing’ and conversion optimization have therefore been predominant. How do I find people who are likely to buy? How do I get them to the virtual cash register as quickly as possible, with as much as possible in their basket? How do I ensure they come back as often as possible? And all that for the lowest possible media investment?

The revolution directly to the consumer

Meanwhile, Nike won a Titanium Lion at Cannes in 2007 for their Nike+ platform. As one of the first big brands in the world, Nike understood that zeros and ones are actually Lego bricks that you can build all sorts of things with, including new services, platforms and revenue models. With Nike+, Nike gave a whole new dimension to their brand mission (“To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world”), not with new sports shoes, clothes or other ‘hardware’, but with a new digital platform. New digital proofing, which was set up entirely based on the brand idea.

Nike+ proved to be revolutionary. Not only in the world of sports, but also in our profession. For the first time, it was seen on a global scale that a brand idea could also lead to completely new evidence; not just for a new packaging of the existing one. Digitization ensures that new products and services can be developed and rolled out much faster than before. Direct-to-consumer models mean that any brand today has control over the purchase and customer experience. And design thinking provides companies with relatively simple tools and processes to arrive at such ideas and to break through organizational silos.

In Chapter 13, Giep Franzen wrote that it would take until 2014 for Procter & Gamble, led by CMO Marc Pritchard, to “be the first company to place any function behind the central goal of brand building and act in a disciplined and tenacious manner” (Franzen, 2022). But now we see the result in more companies than ever. With popular brands like Tesla, Apple and Patagonia, the products and user interface are the most important element of the marketing mix. And in the Netherlands, the success of brands such as Coolblue, Swapfiets and KLM can be traced directly back to their vision of the overall customer experience.

Branded customer experience

In short, the brand is back. The Gartner CMO Survey 2021 once again ranks brand strategy as the most important strategic competency of the CMO. One could even say that integrated brand thinking, which Giep Franzen has propagated and taught for decades, is only really coming into its own today.

Last year in the Netherlands, an EFFIE award was presented for the first time in the new category ‘Branded Customer Experience’. EFFIE is the worldwide award for effective and proven marketing communication, and this new category rewards the brand as a guiding concept for the total customer experience, resulting in a brand image that is not only formed by advertising, but by the sum of every interaction.

This EFFIE was awarded to Crisp: a new Dutch player in online food retail, with the mission of making better food accessible to a large audience. From day 1, Crisp has focused on a Branded Customer Experience at the heart of its strategy. Crisp was designed based on the belief that brand, alongside technology, is the most important driver of sustainable success. The entire customer experience is built around the brand promise: ‘Better food, everyday, effortless’. The brand is fully woven into every step of the customer journey and every fiber of the business. This is reflected in the design of the app, the content around products and the tone of interaction with customer service via Whatsapp. But also in the choices the company makes in relation to delivery (more downtime for each delivery) and assortment. Even a conversion mechanism like ‘member-get-member’ is completely in line with the brand: people don’t give each other a discount, but their favorite products as a gift.

Winning an EFFIE was a great prize, both for the Crisp team and for the team at dentsuACHTUNG! that worked on this case. But personally, I am especially proud that we have shown to all brands in the Netherlands that there is no longer anything standing in the way of putting Giep’s thinking into practice, which I was taught more than 20 years ago. .

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