Product-Market fit isn’t enough anymore; it’s time to think of Experience-Market fit. Here’s how you can get started.

Today’s customers aren’t just measuring your product – they’re also measuring their experience. Give them an unforgettable one.

One of my favorite quotes of all time is by Steve Jobs and it says:

“Get closer than ever to your customers. So close that you tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves.”

We can safely say that Apple knows a thing or two about creating extraordinary products and experiences, and selling them in a way that blows their audience’s minds. If you’re a business leader, there are two important ideas to grasp here; the first is to know what your customers want before they do, and the second is to successfully show them the offering that corresponds to what they want.

So, how do you figure out what your customers want? Where do you begin? Is it enough to have an excellent product or service? How do you stand out? Let’s say you are able to figure out what your offering is and that it coincides perfectly with a market need. How do you convince your customer to make a purchase at the price point you set?

The answer – you’ve got to stop thinking in terms of products and services that fit a market need and start thinking in terms of ‘Experience-Market fit’ [1]. You’ve got to be able to design unforgettable experiences for your customers, and you’ve got to be able to deliver them exceptionally well. This series of articles will show you how to do just this. This first article aims to get you acquainted to start thinking in terms of Experience-Market fit in addressing a market gap so well that you disrupt it.

Let’s dive in.

The advent of the experience economy

The most valuable brands in the world 30 years ago included General Motors, Boeing, and Xerox. The most valuable brands in the world today, as per Forbes, include Netflix, Disney, and Starbucks [2]. List your own top 10 favorite brands; think of the ones you use every day. Chances are, you’ll include Uber, Slack, Airbnb, Spotify, and Netflix. If you can see the pattern here, you’ll find that most brands you love today are more accurately described as “experience disruptors” rather than just “product” brands or even “technology” brands.

In the evolution of the world’s economies, we had the agrarian economy, which was followed by the industrial economy, and subsequently by the service economy. Researchers call the world we now live in the advent of the “experience economy.” About 20 years ago, futurists posited that we would grow towards an economy fueled by, and focussed on, people’s “dreams, adventures, spirituality, and feelings,” calling this the “commercialization of emotions,” in other words, people would buy “stories, legends, emotion, and lifestyle [3] and not products or services.

It’s important to understand the difference between services and experiences. Just as goods can become commoditized, services are increasingly becoming commoditized as well [4] (think of recurring phone bill payments). An experience is valuable because it cannot be commoditized. It helps you build a meaningful connection with your customer. And this helps you stand out. The brands that understand this and deliver this well are able to disrupt entire industries.

What experience disruptors do and why they succeed

Let’s take a look at the world’s most favorite “disruptive” brands and try to see what they really do. B2C brands include Netflix with its tagline: “See what’s next,” Spotify with the motto “Music for everyone,” Uber with “Move the way you want,” and Peloton with “Better is in us.” The most popular B2B brands include Carvana, which promotes “The New Way to Buy a Car,” and Slack with the mission “Be Less Busy.” Upon taking a closer look at why these brands are successful, we see that Carvana understands that 99% of new car buyers expect a troublesome experience buying a car, and resolves it. Slack understands that people need a better way to work, and streamlines communication. Peloton gets the pain of working out alone at home, and offers users a connection through live workouts and tracking, enabling instruction and motivation. Even Nike is increasingly becoming an experience brand, with ‘Niketown’ stores that host games with NBA players and sell memorabilia, creating the overall Nike ‘experience.’

Clearly, these brands aren’t selling products or services – they’re disruptors because they’re selling experiences (even though they do offer excellent products or services). It’s what they sell, and how they sell, that makes them stand out. The reason for this is straightforward – no one likes to be sold to anymore. Think about it – your target customer is exposed to 4,000 – 10,000 advertisements every single day. Due to the sheer volume of this and to prevent being overwhelmed, he or she will ‘process’ or ‘register’ only ~100 of these advertisements [5], and even then, they won’t appreciate obvious marketing.

So, while product or service brands are busy trying to stand out amongst this clutter, brands that are built to experience disruptors are simply focussing on delivering outstanding experiences and building deep relationships, and in doing so, are able to entirely transform what a customer expects out of an industry.

How you can build better Experience-Market fit

To be a brand that demonstrates successful Experience-Market fit, you need to understand the elements of memorable experiences to be able to create and sell them well. Here are nine key methods to help you begin.

#1. Put your customers front and center, and engage them like never before

While many viable businesses are built on logically addressing explicit customer pain points and do very well financially, they don’t end up being industry disruptors. Experience-Market fit demands that you’re able to address your customers’ latent needs by giving them what they can’t yet articulate they want, and moreover, doing so by engaging them better.

Think of creating better engagement via experiences by either building more customer participation, or improving the connection they feel with you [6]. In the words of the authors Pine and Gilmore, “Those which thrive will do so because they treat their economic offering as a rich experience, not a glorified good or celebrated service, staged in a way that engages the individual and leaves behind a memory [7].”

Your experiences may include your customers participating either passively (as one does while watching a movie) or actively (as is the case at a yoga class), so long as they’re getting to spend more time with your brand. Further, you want to build more connection with your consumer, which can be done by increasing his or her attention or absorption (for instance, a person is more absorbed in a live lecture than in a video course), and by increasing levels of immersiveness in an event or activity (for instance, the closer one is to the ground at a cricket match stadium, the more immersed one will be).

#2. Get personal

To build successful Experience-Market fit, your aim should be to engage with your customers individually, making yourself memorable to each of them. Experiences are cherished and remembered by all of us because they are personal, as opposed to an item that we bought, lost and replaced or a utility service we consume regularly. We perceive experiences as ‘sensations,’ not ‘things.’

To stand out, then, you need to learn how to incorporate personalization in the offerings and experiences presented by your brand. How do you make your buyer feel that your offering is tailor made just for him or her? Think of how Netflix gives you recommendations based on your viewing history – the suggestions are crafted for you. Think of how Starbucks calls out your name for each order. Think of how warm the staff at the Ritz are when you stay with them. That’s how you ensure that your customers’ journeys with your brand feel unique and special.

#3. Remove friction and make buying easy

Excellent Experience-Market fit disrupts industries because it challenges and changes the status quo; the customer finds it so easy and joyful to work with the brand that it’s what they come to expect in general, out of a particular sector or industry.

That’s exactly what Carvana did, for instance, as have several other experience disruptors. Carvana made the process of finding, trying out and buying a car similar to an enjoyable shopping experience, such as buying clothes online from Zara or books online from Amazon. They took away all the hassle and friction from the buying journey. They took away all the paperwork and store visits no one wanted to do. They’ve disrupted the market by re-thinking the Experience-Market fit; it’s how people think cars should be bought now.

What can you can take from the Carvana handbook? How can you remove friction by designing better experiences for your customers’ journeys? How can you add much more value to them than your peers do?

#4. Use multiple ‘experience’ ingredients

There are four key ingredients, elements or pillars that extraordinary experiences comprise of, and you want to incorporate as many of these as you can in designing experiences for your customers, in harmony with each other. These include: entertainment (whereby consumers have fun engaging with your brand’s content), education (whereby users receive instruction and learn something new), escapism (whereby people enjoy a respite from their monotonous day-to-day affairs), and aestheticism (by means of which people find themselves immersed in beautiful settings) [8].

Your customer’s attention span is highly limited, so you want to capitalize well on it and leave them with something they’ve not only found worthwhile, but also enjoyable. Celebrities or pop-up stores can help you build more entertainment and more engagement. Brands such as Whole Foods have really helpful blogs that educate and inspire their customers, making them much more likely to remember their overall experience with the brand. If you don’t want to entertain or educate your audience, how about helping them escape? (Think of Bud Light’s Game of Thrones inspired ‘Dilly Dilly’ campaign). Lastly, you could build memorable experiences using aesthetics well (for instance, think of how you feel at an art gallery or tropical-themed boutique hotel).

#5. Use a theme

Themes make experiences very memorable, and thereby, your brand very memorable. Remember though, that your theme needs to feel ‘real’ – it isn’t about marketing gimmicks or passing fads. The most memorable brands use themes to inform all their operations, design, and experiences, and in doing so, tell a story to a fascinated customer. Themes will help you shake up a reticent sector in an industry, stand out, and at the very least, charge much more.

If you’re looking for examples of brands that use themes well, perhaps the best example is Apple. Its minimalistic and intuitive design and ease of connectivity run through and through every product created – making it one of the most loved and valued brands on the planet.

#6. Use positive language and cues

In building Experience-Market fit, the language you use in interacting with your customers is crucial. It not only needs to align with your brand visuals or theme, but also needs to be positive, warm and authentic at each touchpoint throughout the customer’s journey to make them remember you.

There are many ways for you to get started, and many brands to learn from. Nike uses Twitter extremely efficiently, with customers receiving replies in a matter of seconds, any day of the week and in multiple languages. Starbucks proactively asks for feedback at ‘ideas.starbucks.com’ ensuring that not only is the customer less likely to complain, but also that she’s more likely to get involved in the experience of creating the next pumpkin-spice-latte. And Netflix ensures its customer support is in the same casual language that their users speak in.

#7. Make use of digital or physical memorabilia

Our world is increasingly transitioning into a digital one, and you want to leverage this while building your Experience-Market fit. You’re likely to have heard of the NFT boom in 2021; Non Fungible Tokens are exploding because they capture the value of original digital assets or collectibles, build scarcity, increase demand, and establish true ownership. The creation of ‘experiential’ NFTs is at its genesis, and you should certainly keep an eye on its uses for improving your brand engagement. In the meanwhile, though, think of how you can reinforce the experience your brand creates by using NFTs for brand collectibles. Coca-Cola is doing it. As is Taco Bell [9].

Think of why people buy refrigerator magnets depicting the places they’ve been to. They want to remember and relive their experiences. They don’t even think of the premium they’re paying over ordinary magnets, and in all probability, have nothing to stick up on their refrigerator. Using souvenirs or collectibles well can help any service business gain an edge against their competitors by building recall in the minds of their customers.

So, to make your brand’s experiences more sticky, why not make use of memorabilia, whether in a physical or digital form? Sports collectibles and art NFTs have created a multi-billion dollar market; items signed by star athletes are worth a great deal, if not priceless, to collectors. Memorabilia remind us of extraordinary games, events or journeys of once-in-a-generation stars or creators. It’s why the dress Marilyn Monroe wore for John F. Kennedy’s birthday was sold for $4.8 Million to Ripley’s, or why the prototype Batmobile fetched $4.2 Million [10], and more recently, why Christie’s sold Beeple’s ‘Everydays’ NFT for over $69 Million [11].

#8. Engage all the senses

The more of our senses that experiences touch upon, the more immersed we feel in the experience. Think of your last experience at a spa; you’re likely to remember it very well, however long ago it might have been. You were probably greeted with honey and hibiscus tea (taste), the ambient music was the soothing sound of a pianist or of nature (sound), the lighting was always dim and calming (sight), there was a magical lemongrass or lavender fragrance (smell), and you got your orange-peel and green-tea scrub full body massage (touch). That was all your five senses engaged for a full 60 minutes. And every element of the experience had a common goal – to help you relax.

In building better Experience-Market fit, try to work with as many senses in designing your customer experiences, but remember they need to tie in with each other and complement each other, adding to, rather than distracting from, the main goal of your experience.

#9. Get your customers to influence other customers

Once you’ve begun to get your Experience-Market fit right, you’ll want to scale up. Making your experience memorable for a customer will help you; not only are you likely to have made a customer for life, but also made a brand advocate of him or her. The more in love with your brand and their experience with it a customer is, the more people they’ll tell. You don’t need to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to social media influencers – you need to make sure each customer leaves with an extraordinary story to tell the thousand people they know. Which brands do you think you can learn from? Perhaps Southwest Airlines. Perhaps Nordstrom. Definitely Airbnb.

With this, you’re well equipped with the fundamentals of Experience-Market fit, and you’re on your way to begin building the next disruptive brand.

References

[1] Brian Halligan, The Experience Disrupters, MIT Sloan Management Review, (2020). https://mitsmr.com/2vnXxsR

[2] The world’s most valuable brands, Forbes (2020). https://www.forbes.com/the-worlds-most-valuable-brands/#2633296d119c

[3] Jensen and Rolf, Dream Society, The Futurist, (1996).

[4] Pine and Gilmore, Welcome to the Experience Economy, Harvard Business Review, (1998). https://hbr.org/1998/07/welcome-to-the-experience-economy

[5] Jon Simpson, Finding Brand Success In The Digital World, Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesagencycouncil/2017/08/25/finding-brand-success-in-the-digital-world/?sh=4df07a8c626e

[6] Daniel Newman, What Is The Experience Economy, And Should Your Business Care? Forbes (2015). https://www.forbes.com/sites/danielnewman/2015/11/24/what-is-the-experience-economy-should-your-business-care/?sh=2ab493d21d0c

[7], [8] Natasha Dzurny, The experience economy by Pine and Gilmore, NYU blog (2013). https://technochicblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/the-experience-economy-by-pine-gilmore/

[9] Clément Bourcart, How 5 Top Consumer Brands Use NFTs in Their Marketing Strategy, Better Marketing blog (2021). https://bettermarketing.pub/how-5-top-consumer-brands-use-nfts-in-their-marketing-strategy-ca36f933a0d7

[10] Most Expensive Memorabilia Ever Sold, Prestige Magazine, https://www.totalprestigemagazine.com/most-expensive-memorabilia-ever-sold/

[11] Kyle Chayka, How Beeple Crashed the Art World, The New Yorker (2021). https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/how-beeple-crashed-the-art-world