How Should Marketers Conceive of ‘Consumer Experience’ in This Time of Pandemic?

Bob Deutsch

For quite a few years, “Consumer Experience” has been one of the big buzzwords in the marketing lexicon. Now, amidst the economic downturn and an increased reliance on digital in the time of the Coronavirus pandemic, greater attention should be paid to what actually comprises consumer experience?

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

Starting when digital appeared on the scene, the essence of branding has been changing from what it was during the pre-mobile world: the product-as-brand is no longer the ultimate referent. “ME-as-brand” is now the base coin of business success. The emphasis has turned 180 degrees, from product to people. This shift has only gained emphasis in the time of Coronavirus.

Personal Authenticity

Rightly so, with the threat of disease just a virus-carrying, airborne droplet away, people feel ungrounded. Their world has abruptly changed, like a bat out of hell. Work, school, relationships and shopping have been altered. People are asking: What now? What and who should I believe? And no one knows the answers for sure. This brings up questions about self: Who am I? In this context — especially when their livelihoods are in jeopardy — what people value even more than products is a growing sense of who and what they truly are. Since March 2020, people feel like a flag in the wind and Bob Dylan’s words cannot be applied: The answers are NOT blowing in the wind. Each person now has to anchor him- or her-self not by thinking out-of-the-box, but by thinking inside SELF.

An expanded sense of personal authenticity is the prize possession. Companies would benefit if their product communications would go beyond the immature monologue of “We’re all in this together/stay well and keep safe/and buy my product.”

Here are two examples of the consumer experience that demonstrate today’s definition of value as peoples’ quest for personal 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.”

Living On Auto-Pilot Is No Longer Adaptive

The underlying key to consumer experience is now helping people have experiences that help nudge them out of running on from auto-pilot.

The context we currently live in is unprecedented. Everything is unsure. The familiar is asunder. Doubt reigns. So much is politicized.

A typical response in such unstable and threatening times is to go on auto-pilot. In a defensive mode, it is common to stay on the surface of experience, go for the stereotyped routine and hunker down… until the next moment, living life as a series of staccato “nows.” The result: Life becomes disembodied and disjointed.

In normal times, life is so fast and comes with so many externally-supplied demands that we flit from one thing to another, never going deep into anything, particularly ourselves. On the job, people in normal times 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. We lose track of who we are, internally. Our lives shrink. In a time of “lockdown,” this onslaught of time is considerably slowed-down. Now is a time for self-reflection, seeking to make what’s dormant in you more manifest. And the irony is, the more self-understanding one has, the more empathy one has for ‘the other.’ Once you see more of your own complexities and paradoxes, you are better able to see ‘the other’ as somewhat like you. Things are not exclusively perceived as black or white. This is a benefit society needs now, even more than loyalty to a product purveyor. However, when people feel more at-peace they are more open to new things…including products.

The Indispensable Aspect

Any consumer involvement with self that aids in bringing a person out of the mundane numbness derived from living on auto-pilot can be conceived of as the ultimate consumer experience. Anything that opens up a person, taps into their sense of curiosity, and immerses them in feeling and not just stereotypes is what people and society really need now. Something surprising, something spontaneous, anything that stirs up emotions and memories, and stimulates people to see their own familiar in a new and bigger way is now the sine qua non of life and of business.

Putting experience back into ‘consumer 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 — sales will rise, and more importantly, so will people’s vitality.

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