Context is everything

5 minute read

When we launched our agency over five years ago, The Garden’s website opened with a statement that “it’s no longer about the impressions that you buy. It’s about the impression that you make.” Our belief was rooted in the idea that making an impression is not just a function of telling people what they should think and feel about your product or service. In fact, the classic advertising adage, “nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising,” gets at this very notion. What’s most important is how people experience your brand overall. While one poor experience can cause someone to reject your brand outright, building a positive impression is generally the result of a journey that happens over time and across spaces that today are both physical and virtual.

For customers in the real world, that journey involves acknowledging a need or problem, discovering remedies or solutions, learning, evaluating options, making a choice, purchasing, anticipating, engaging in a product or service experience, reflecting and evaluating. In some categories, people traverse this journey quickly, moving through stages [and even skipping some] at a pace facilitated by the digital tools that are embedded in daily life. For many others, the journey happens over months and even years before a person actually becomes a direct customer of a company’s product or service.

Start with customer context

Understanding the journey first and foremost through the lens of your customer is so critical. Many times, I’ve seen the customer journey mapped primarily from the business’ point of view, highlighting their existing touchpoints and focused on the moments of truth: a phrase coined in 2005 by A.G. Lafley, President and CEO of Procter & Gamble, to describe what he saw as the two most critical points of influence:

  1. When a customer is first exposed to your product
  2. When they purchase and experience it

Identifying and mapping these trigger points in a journey is heavily reliant on behavioural data that identify the where, what and even the how of a customer’s interaction.

Yet, 95 per cent of this data collection is missing the why – the insights into why people do the things they do, their motivations, what they value, their personal situation, who they go to for advice – and even their social connectivity.

Fundamentally, customer context is all about the why. Without this understanding, moments of truth are just moments of transaction.

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The role of brand context and the importance of brand building

A well-defined customer journey, even one filled with valuable insight into the customer’s situation, mindset, desires, influences, behaviours, expectations and challenges, provides one half of the toolkit required for commercial success. The other half requires the brand context – why it exists and what makes it different and compelling.

What goes into a strong brand

A powerful brand understands its why, which in turn provides:

Focus: a clear sense of purpose and a POV that anchors decision making

Relevance: a shared emotional connection that goes beyond functional proof points

Uniqueness: that sets a brand apart in the hearts and minds of people

Motivation: that transforms employees and other internal stakeholders into brand believers and advocates

Knowing what a customer wants and needs is one thing. The next step is understanding what role your brand can and should play in a way that is meaningful, authentic and differentiating.

Imagine you were given the challenge of creating a completely new library experience for customers. Think of the different decisions you would make if the why for your library brand was to “inspire local and global change by empowering people to discover and learn something new,” versus another brand that was all about “creating a haven from the chaos of real life through an escape from the daily grind.” While the functional need of a library patron is to find and borrow books and other materials, and both brands may boast catalogues with tens of thousands of resources, the experience of each library would actually be quite unique.

The best marketers are those who can connect the dots between customer context and brand context to design a customer journey that delivers meaningful value throughout, not just at the point of transaction. This is what fundamentally ensures a brand stands out in an otherwise cluttered sea of customer choice.

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The customer journey and the COVID context

Customer context is always in flux, whether we’re moving in and out of different life stages or facing other changes in our personal situation. However, during a global pandemic, we found ourselves confronted with repercussions that caused the most significant shifts of our lifetime – in consumer behaviour, attitudes and psychology. Other than the First and Second World Wars, there has never been an event that has had such a universal impact, reaching people in every corner of the globe.

There is no better example of the impact of customer context on the consumer journey than in an extreme situation like this where we witnessed all of the following:

  • An unprecedented acceleration in digital adoption. Consulting firm McKinsey has called this the “decade in days” for the speed at which consumers have altered their digital behaviours.
  • A psychographic shift from the fear of missing out [FOMO] to the fear of going out [FOGO]. Cocooning behaviours have affected how people view their living circumstances, with many struggling under the stress of constant life in a small space, and others reducing their spend on out-of-home experiences and travel while increasing their investment in products and services directed toward at-home comfort and indulgence.
  • Digital entertainment has grown at warp speed, with Netflix surpassing 200 million paid subscribers at the end of 2020 and new service Disney+ gaining over 90 million customers by early 2021 – a number they originally projected would take four years to achieve.
  • At-home fitness surged in popularityas people adjusted their exercise routines to the realities of life under lockdown. Faced with drastic reductions in revenue, the fitness industry, much of which depended upon in-person service delivery, began to offer on-demand fitness at scale – a trend that is not likely to reverse.

While a number of companies have benefited from these massive shifts, the majority of organizations are facing an upending of the customer journey as they had known it. And, while everyone would agree that a world without COVID-19 would be a better one, as Stanford economist Paul Romer once stated, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

Those who survive this economic upheaval are the companies that adapt to this entirely new customer context, examining every aspect of their customer journey and making both necessary and innovative changes to survive and potentially thrive as the economy opens up.

Re-evaluating the customer journey and customer experience as we jump into the new normal

Your future-forward planning will undoubtedly be impacted by this disrupted customer context. As you weigh adjustments your brand will need to make across the entire customer journey, here are five buckets of questions to consider:

  1. Which changes are temporary versus permanent when it comes to customer mindsets and behaviours?
  1. Are there new expectations of your brand and business that have impacted the customer journey?
  1. What opportunities have arisen for your brand to deliver customer value in the new economy?
  1. Are there new drivers of customer loyalty in your business? How can you think differently about building loyalty and developing trust with your customers?
  1. How will you show you care and deliver the proper emotional response to meet your customer’s new context? How might you find solutions to new customer problems and concerns?

Why should all of this matter?

The status quo will no longer suffice. It would be a mistake to believe there will be a return to business as usual.

Shari Walczak


The Garden

First, understanding customer wants and needs and designing for a customer journey that delivers value against them creates competitive advantage. In fact, 73 per cent of customers say that one extraordinary experience with a brand raises their expectations of other brands.

Second, the status quo will no longer suffice. It would be a mistake to believe there will be a return to business as usual. Almost 80 per cent of people expect that the COVID-19 pandemic should be a catalyst for real business improvements. When those improvements are meaningful and tangible across the customer journey, there is a good chance you will transform prospects into fans who often end up being worth ten times their original purchase.

In order to make lasting impressions on customers demanding deeper contextual understanding, today’s marketers must shift from “How can I get my message out?” to “How can I create a better experience throughout the customer journey?”

Because buying those impressions gets harder every day.

This is an abridged version of the article, “Context Is Everything,” which appears in Experience of Marketing, the latest issue of INCITE.

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Shari Walczak
Shari Walczak is co-founder of The Garden, one of Canada’s top independent creative and brand strategy agencies, with clients including Samsung, Roots, SodaStream, Mama Earth Organics, Alida, Loopio, Jack Astor’s, FitTrack and the HRPA. Combining an M.S. in Creativity and Change Leadership from SUNY Buffalo State and an HBA from the Ivey Business School at Western, she has built a reputation as a brand strategy expert, skilled facilitator and passionate advocate for creativity in education and the workplace. more by Shari Walczak