Your brain prefers experiences. Why experiences are a critical mechanism for driving emotional connections and memories with customers

Brandon Bester, Customer Success Manager.

Gone are the days of Homo Economicus; advances in behavioural science and brain research are highlighting the importance of emotion and sub-conscious neural processes in driving human behaviour. Only now are brands beginning to realise this in the context of their brand communications and elements. However, it is also pertinent to take cognisance of emotion and human behaviour when designing customer experiences. Where brand messaging sets the baseline for customer expectations, the customer’s actual experience is the moment of truth with regards to delivery of that promise.

Delivering on Expectations – triggering the amygdala

As human beings we have preprogramed expectations for a multitude of experiences, which would be placed in different categories and sub-categories (one of the brain’s optimisation methods is to categorise information, which is partially where stereotypes come from). Expectations will be a collection of memories and emotional states from previous experiences, brand messaging, etc. Current conditions would also impact expectations. For example, customers may have a low baseline in terms of expected service from an insurance claims process (based on previous experience) and may adjust this expectation up or down based on a brand’s specific promise, as well as the nature of their claim. When it comes to delivery of a customer experience compared to the customer’s expectation, there is only one positive outcome – exceeding the customer’s expectation. Merely meeting customers’ expectations is not good enough to build lasting positive associations. Why? Surprise is an important element of human learning; positively surprising a customer triggers dopamine (pleasure/reward system) from the nucleus accumbens, thereby creating positive associations with the brand. Furthermore, while many people associate the amygdala with fight-or-flight responses, it is also an integral component of emotional learning (both positive and negative). So a strong positive surprise would trigger the reward system and long-term emotional learning. Similarly, negative surprises also trigger the amygdala, thereby creating negative associations – this is especially true since human beings are programmed to attend more to negative stimuli than positive stimuli for survival reasons.

Ensure your brand touchpoints consistently exceed customer expectations across the customer journey.

Personal memories – episodic memory

Customer experiences are also a perfect opportunity to build lasting memories about a brand. Neuroscience distinguishes between two types of memory; semantic memory and episodic memory. While semantic memory is the retention and recollection of facts, episodic memory is the retention and recollection of personally salient information, such as how a customer felt when purchasing an item. Episodic memory is the space to play in when building emotional brand associations. Brand communications can trigger episodic memory, however there is no more powerful way to leverage episodic memory than through the personal experience a customer has with your brand. Customer experiences should therefore be aimed at making the experience as personal as possible for the customer i.e. empathising. This requires a deep understanding of who the customer is, as well as engaging with the customer on an individual level. Modern customers no longer accept being treated as a number.

Customer experiences are the perfect mechanism to build positive associations with a brand in episodic memory. Treat customers with empathy, and ensure that the experience delivers on their personal expectations from the brand.

Personal meaning – ventromedial prefrontal cortex

Similarly, since customer experiences are personal to the individual customer, they also have the most leverage in terms of building personal meaning from the experience, associated with the brand. Neuroscience research has shown that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) plays an important role in personal meaning. Furthermore, research has also shown this region of the brain to be involved in brand loyalty; taste test experiments between two beverage brands showed more activation in the vmPFC and reward systems when customers knew they were drinking their preferred brand. Therefore, personal customer experiences also provide the opportunity to trigger neural processes that are also effective at driving brand advocacy.

Good customer experiences can activate the vmPFC and drive personal meaning and stronger brand loyalty from the experience.

Emotion and memory are multi-sensory

Human emotion and memory are multi-sensory; all sensory information from the body and brain is integrated in order to flag salience, trigger emotional responses, memory recollection and consolidation, as well as allocate attention. While traditional brand messaging and communications can leverage visual and auditory cues, customer experiences provide the opportunity to integrate a multitude of sensory information, and thereby create stronger emotional connections and memories. Everything from the temperature, current state of health (i.e. whether or not a customer is feeling well), the surrounding sounds, etc. can impact on an experience. Olfaction is a great example (especially since smell is one of the more primitive human senses), and is often used extensively in retail and hospitality. For example the smell of lemongrass now triggers memories of my honeymoon and the positive feelings/emotions that I had at that time, and at the specific establishment we were at – lemongrass was used consistently throughout the resort, from the accommodation through to the public facilities. Customer experiences are the ultimate mechanism for designing an emotionally impactful and memorable association with a brand. In retail, leverage as many of the human senses as possible. In call centre environments, ensure that employees adopt a pleasant tone of voice and that processes are as effortless as possible – cognitive ease is a means to create positive associations.

Design customer experiences to leverage as much of the human senses in a positive way as possible. While humans are primarily visual, senses such as olfaction, temperature, and sound also make significant impacts.

As much as we are digitally connected and consumed as a society, being bombarded by stimuli of all sorts on a daily basis, our brains still prefer experiences. Experiences build stronger emotional and memorable connections – whether good or bad – making them a critical component of the marketing mix to get right consistently. Understanding the theory and cognitive/neural constructs behind human behaviour and emotion will help identify why designing positive customer experience is important. However; a formal, structured customer experience management program is necessary to allow one to adopt an always on approach to listening, learning, and engaging with customers as they experience various aspects of your brand.

As experiences improve, so the benchmark for customer expectations increases, making emotive customer experience management an iterative process. There is no silver bullet, but listening to, learning from and engaging with your customers using a Customer Experience platform such as inQuba is where the insights, refinement and magic happens!’

 

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