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Architecting a good brand experience

by Nigel Hollis | March 25, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, I referred to an article on the importance of signs titled, “The Secret Language of Signs” by Julia Turner in Slate magazine. She has a second article called, “Lost in Penn Station” that I can really relate to. I like to believe I have a good sense of direction, but New York’s Penn Station just seems designed to confuse and I have been lost in it on more than one occasion. 

Turner suggests that the reason Penn Station is so confusing is not that the “wayfinders” who design the navigation system and signage ignored good practice, but that three sets of designers designed three different systems. You see, Penn Station is home to three different railroads: Amtrak owns the station and manages its own concourse, but it leases the rest of the space to New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road. As Turner notes, each organization’s signage is legible and directs people well within its own concourse, but people using the station often have to navigate across all three to get to where they need to be. She says:

This is a crazy way to manage information at the biggest railway station in the country. The user experiences Penn Station as one place. But the current system assumes that the user experiences the station as three distinct spaces.

Of course, Penn Station is not alone in its craziness. Brands do it all the time. For instance, I do not distinguish between the British Airways Web site, the flight on a BA Boeing 747, arrival at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, or using the company’s customer service hotline. As far as I am concerned, they are all different parts of the experience of flying with British Airways. When one part of that experience fails to meet my expectations, the whole brand suffers. The same is true of banks with ATMs, physical outlets, Web sites and correspondence. 

Turner suggests that one of the main reasons Penn Station fails to deliver a positive user experience is that no one is responsible for the entire user experience. She states that the single most crucial thing a wayfinding designer must do is think about the user, anticipate their goals and understand how they will perceive a space. She says:

When signs are good, and you pay attention to them, you can sense the level of thought that went into them. Someone, somewhere, anticipated the journey you are on, and the information you would need. At Penn Station as a whole, it's no one's job to think about how you'll get where you're going. And you can tell.

I would suggest the same is true of many brands. No one is responsible for the overall user experience and, as a result, the total brand experience is undermined. You might think that this responsibility rests with the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), but according to a joint research project by Forrester Research and Heidrick & Struggles, most CMOs are not responsible for customer service and support or in-store/branch training.  

That seems crazy to me. For many brands, customer service and the in-store experience probably have far more influence on brand loyalty – good or bad – than anything else. If the CMO is charged with developing positive brand perceptions and value, then they should at least have control over the most important elements of the brand experience. 

Maybe what brands need is not a CMO, but a Chief Brand Wayfinder, someone charged with being responsible for the overall user experience. What do you think? Please share your thoughts. 


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  1. Nigel, April 02, 2013
    Thanks for the comments.
    Eduardo, I think that Steve's comment answers your question. Viewing marketing, customer relations and ops as separate functions is ultimately self-defeating. All managers need to understand what the brand stands for and seek to deliver an optimal and unified experience. One of the reasons that "autocratic" organizations (think Apple under Steve Jobs) tend to be so successful is that there is a unifying vision of what the brand means and has to deliver. So how do you create a unified vision in the absence of an autocrat? A lot of hard work! Reaching out to colleagues, sharing your ideas, listening to theirs and trying to reach a consensus that not only makes sense internally but externally. As Graham suggests, research can help in this process by identifying common problems or choke points. Hope this helps!
  2. Graham Staplehurst, April 02, 2013
    I have had a very positive experience of a brand better designing its customer experience, working with a UK grocery retailer.  They commissioned Millward Brown (together with Kantar Retail and a semiotics expert) to review their entire customer experience.  We mapped out every touchpoint from home to store and back again, and through a combination of qualitative insights and quantitative modelling have been able to identify all the areas in need of improvement.  Signage was a really big issue for customers (although we also discovered how the toilets can affect food quality perceptions, for example).  Some of the issues included the overall number and purpose of signs, their coherency of style, the use of different fonts to signal different types of message, and the use of humour on handwritten chalkboards on the fish counter.  The whole team learnt a huge amount about the store from the customer's perspective, and the whole project was driven by the marketing team who are now ensuring the rest of organisation catches up.
  3. Matt, March 28, 2013
    I've preached this for a while. Think of your typical higher education brand (yes, they are brands, much to their chagrin). There is admissions, current students and alumni. All constituents receive information from the brand at different points in the experience. To the user, it is all one school. To the school, the user is a different person, being communicated to by different offices. 

    Digital is connecting the experience. Social is confusing it for all. 
  4. Sandy Gerber, March 27, 2013
    I have also wondered why CMOs tend to not focus enough on brand marketing. A few years ago there was an article by Dave Rosenberg on CNET about how CMOs are not developing brand marketing nor are they prepared for the future of marketing which is all about brand marketing. I refer to brand awareness as Brand Chatter™. If CMOs implemented the proper focus on unifying the brand experience within the entire company this would save customers/consumers from confusion and would give them an accurate and hopefully positive brand experience.  
  5. Steve Klinghoffer, March 27, 2013
    Building a brand depend requires you to differentiate you, your company, your service or your product from all others.  One of the best ways to do this is by providing valuable and interesting information.  "Content is king" is not just a saying.  It is the way to set yourself apart from the competition.
  6. EDUARDO CARVAJAL, March 27, 2013


    I couldn’t agree with you more Nigel. However when trying to find out how to approach this I find really hard to take an objective solution, specially because every person sees the same problem in different ways and people approaches the solution in different ways; to put this thought into  simpler words, lets say person A has a problem at the bus station buying his ticket, he might think is the companies fault since a friend of his went through the same thing once, even if it isn’t the brands fault person A assumes it is and no matter where he goes it happens, so the manager tells person A, you get a free ticket because of the problem ( best solution to the person A provided by the manager, not the brand). Meanwhile, person B didn’t go trough that problem but has a reaching problem, he never gets to find the telephone number or the webpage to contact and successfully purchase his tickets, so most of the times in case of urgence he buys his tickets at the closest and easiest to reach company.

    This situations may project different things towards the brand, neither could be controlled by the marketing manager since are more operational and customer relationship issues, although both area´s managers would solve the problem, the problems were solved at the moment and never to be consulted to the rest because of their independent nature.

    In the end, even if the whole company tries to get aligned with a single brand image, it will always be perceived differently depending on your interaction of it and problems would tried to be solved to the correspondent issue.

    Keen to hear your thoughts on this, cheers

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