Wanted: Chief Experience Officers

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There is no relaxing for innovative brands. Customers demand that they stay on high alert - high experience alert, that is! Customers expect that direct merchants have mastered the art and science of multichannel marketing, synching up the purchasing experience and creating memorable and consistent brand touch points for customers. As they say, that was so five minutes ago.


More than five minutes ago, B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore discussed the power of experiential marketing in their book, "The Experience Economy." This work gave rise to the art of transforming ordinary transactions into experiential events. They reminded us of the necessity in keeping the customer at center court.


"Staging experiences is not about entertaining customers, it's about engaging them," they wrote.


Kevin Roberts, CEO at Saatchi & Saatchi, recently built on Pine and Gilmore's theory of customer engagement in "Lovemarks, The Future Beyond Brands," his new book. "Brands have run out of juice. They're dead," he wrote.


A P&G-trained marketer, Roberts reinforces the notion that "only brands that have developed a real intimacy with their customers will survive. And real intimacy is about connections, experiences and 'loyalty beyond reason.' Lovemarks are the charismatic brands that people love and fiercely protect."


Successful direct marketers are in the experience business. They meet their customers not just on catalog pages and on the Web and in brick-and-mortar locations, they surround their customers in an intimate, emotional way. They court their customers in intriguing ways, fueling their passion for meaningful experiences, all the while feeding their customers' souls and their companies' bottom line. It's more than a win-win. It's a way of life for these companies and their customers.


Let's look at some of these DM "lovemarks" and the nontraditional experiences they offer to engage customers.


Cabela's. It was way ahead of Gilmore and Pine. In 1991, Cabela's brought the great outdoors in as it created a flagship experience store like no other in Sydney, NE, and made its "catalog come to life" not only for existing customers but for "new-to-the-brand" tourists as well. This store has striking wildlife dioramas and aquariums inside. It even creates experiences outside its doors with full-service campgrounds for visitors. Even with a traditional brick-and-mortar channel, Cabela's sets the bar for what Pine and Gilmore called "theatre-making."


But that's just the tip of the iceberg. The real multi-experiences Cabela's offers customers are brand-building, "in the field" things like Peacock Bass Fishing excursions in Brazil or exclusive South African hunting adventures. And did you ever think a direct marketer would get into the real estate business? Just another multi-experience for Cabela's. It built a Trophy Properties business to offer outdoorsmen "fine sporting recreational properties" and places to use all the Cabela's goods and services.


Wintergreen. Wintergreen takes outdoors living seriously and makes winter a real event. According to the catalog, even the namesake is experiential: "Wintergreen is a hardy little boreal shrub that thrives year round, especially in the winter." The company thinks the experiences it offers customers are as integral to the brand as the products it sells. Its Wintergreen Lodge property is the Northcountry's top dogsled center. It conducts Arctic expeditions, photo and writing workshops and many dogsled lodge-to-lodge or camping excursions.


Product craftsmanship is multi-experience, too. The catalog's opening spread proclaims: "We live, design, sew and sell our gear in Minnesota's Canadian border wilderness. We began by designing gear for our first expedition to the North Pole. We're one of the last full-line outdoor clothing makers in the U.S."


All the brand touch points are like its namesake and what customers have come to expect: "hardy"!


Levenger. Steve Leveen, CEO and co-founder with his wife, Lori, of Levenger, the catalog of "tools for serious readers," had a problem. He could not fulfill the one thing his customers most wanted from him: more time to read. He pondered the topic and wrote a book about this issue, and thus "The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life" was born. The wellreadlife.com site describes the book as a "personal odyssey that most time-starved, overscheduled, rather-be-reading, want-to-be-living people can relate to."


It's an experience itself, a delightful book, all about book love and reading by listening. This "product" is well integrated into all the Levenger channels.


But Leveen and his team did not stop there. They turned the book into a literary experience called Living the Well-Read Life Workshops that will reinforce the Levenger brand to core customers and introduce the brand to new book lovers. Leveen personally will conduct these workshops nationwide. What better way for his customers and future customers to become intimately involved with the brand? And what better way for Levenger to stay mindfully connected to its audience? Sounds like a best seller to me!


Lillian Vernon. In these days of "bowling alone" and catalog/Web shopping as solitary activities, Lillian Vernon offered customers yet another way to order her products. Why not capitalize on the fun of getting together like monthly book groups do and throw a party? Thus, Celebrations by Lillian Vernon was born.


Tapping the strength of a nontraditional channel for direct marketers, direct selling (otherwise known as party plans), Lillian Vernon is adding to her experiential repertoire by letting "consultants" sell for her. The Web site touts it as "The first party that's truly a party! The Celebrations 'Direct Advantage' - we ship straight to the customer - when the party's over, there's nothing more for you to do!"


In addition to leveraging the social aspect of the party method, Lillian Vernon also capitalizes on the convenience factor that other traditional direct sellers can't or don't offer. Watch for other DMers to enter this channel!


Alloy. What is one of every teen girl's fantasies? If you guessed "to be a model," you were right. Alloy gets teen girls. In addition to a catalog and Web site chock-full of magalog advice, articles and quizzes that thrill adolescent girls (Check your Lovescope!), Alloy recently created a "model" experience for this audience.


Playing on the "tell-several-friends party plan" formula, Alloy created an experiential party. It looked for girls to host a premiere party, invite four friends and participate in "Top Model Makeovers" by taking before and after photos of each other using the makeup sent to them. It was a huge success. Engaging, intimate, brand-building - all the while bringing 13- to 17-year-olds closer to their dreams!


Orvis. Its customers have an abundance of experiences to take advantage of, from a Peru medical clinic to a Bahamas saltwater clinic to hikes in Africa to fly-fishing schools in all the right places. Like Cabela's and Wintergreen's customers, Orvis plays an integral role in customers' adventure vacation planning. This is now expected from sports traditions companies. Customers want to know where to go with all this gear!


But did you know you now can buy a log home from Orvis? "Finally, a place for all your Orvis gear!" its Web site states.


This experience takes Orvis to a new level in the minds of its customers and competitors. Truly one-stop shopping: order your house, your furnishings, your vacation, your gear and all the necessary clothing from Orvis. It's an experience for a lifetime!


So, who is your chief experience officer? Who is looking to create memorable, theater-making, buzz-worthy events for your customers? What are you waiting for?


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