Experience necessary

Companies which give away free samples are giving consumers a taste of their brand. Should corporate websites work the same way?

In the last century I used to encourage agency colleagues to regard an advertisement as a sample of the brand. The thought often baffled my audience.

Sampling was something quite different, less interesting and certainly less “creative”. It concerned either slipping a physical sample of a product into a letterbox or sticking it on to another product as a free offer.

Sampling, in other words, was about getting consumers to try the brand, to use it at the brand’s expense. Not what agencies were really about. They created images for brands, made them distinctive, appealing and eventually a consumer is stimulated into parting with money. Physical sampling short-circuits this operation.

Sampling, of course, also short-circuited traditional advertising theory. Most models of advertising (for instance, AIDA – Attention Interest Desire Action) were strictly linear. The purpose of an ad was to affect, create, reinforce or change attitudes. This would in turn influence behaviour. Sampling attempts to reverse the process. Behaviour influences attitude.

For example, a couple of years ago I was confronted at Victoria station by a young lady with a segment of grapefruit. I thought I knew all about grapefruit – refreshing, but sour. What I tasted was sweet. Whereas an ad may not have convinced me, tasting was believing. Behaviour had influenced attitude.

Post-It-Notes were launched in both the US and Europe via mail shots to secretaries, inviting them to suggest uses and request further samples. Actual J Cloths were stitched into the pages of The Daily Express. In both these cases difficult concepts (part-time glue and a tough paper-based cleaning cloth) were communicated essentially by demonstration, rather than text and pictures.

Sampling today is alive and well – take for example the scent strips in glossy magazines, test-drives from glossy showrooms and a free paperback from magazines or newspapers featuring extracts from the novels. Free samples to encourage purchase and, maybe, overcome prejudice.

When I asked that an ad be a sample of the brand I was not recommending including a coupon for a free offer. I was making an obvious point, namely that the reader’s or viewer’s involvement with the ad is actually an experience of the brand. In some key cases, the first such. It is, therefore, essential that the experience is totally coherent with the subsequent experience of the brand. Consuming the ad should be like consuming the brand. And, of course, the principle applies not only to ads, but to leaflets, brochures, mailshots, all marketing communication.

Many classic campaigns are samples of brands. The joyful, cheeky Volkswagen Beetle. Enjoyable and a presage for enjoyable performance. The Economist outdoor campaign: “‘I never read The Economist’, Management Trainee age 42”. It treats the passer-by in the same way as the paper treats the reader. An early Campari ad in the US ran the headline: “Nine out of every ten thousand Americans prefer Campari”. Featured were supposedly the actual nine above idiosyncratic captions. Having read the ad, you might be tempted to taste the drink, though you would hardly anticipate savouring a bland vermouth. The ad is a sample of the brand, a pre-echo, albeit in a different dimension, of the experience of consumption.

And what was true (at least to me) in the last century is blindingly obvious in this one. If your website is not a sample of your brand then you have problems. The Internet, like sampling, shortens the distance between brand and consumer. Access to a site is an experience of the brand. How the brand performs is crucial.

The high priest of “Web usability” is one Doctor Jakob Nielsen, principal of the Nielsen Norman Group. Access his website www.alertbox.com and you’ll find practical guidelines on Web design. (He practises what he preaches: his site is usable, free of distraction, austere even.) His fortnightly columns have been preaching improved Web design since 1995. Typical titles include “The difference between print design and Web design”, “Should you outsource Web design?” and, provocatively, “Why advertising doesn’t work on the Web except for classified ads, which are better on-line than in print”.

Interviewed in The Guardian, Nielsen stresses that the Web “is nothing but customer experience”. He downplays brand image and asserts that Barnes and Noble lost out to Amazon because “they weren’t focusing on how to buy a book, they were focusing on building a brand”. The trick, of course, is to build a brand while focusing on usability.

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