Why Memorable Experiences Will Always Trump Flashy Marketing Tactics

My wife and I recently welcomed our first child, and we are, of course, filled with incomprehensible and indescribable joy. We were lucky enough to deliver our son at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Denver, and our truly incredible experience, from start to finish, is what prompted this post. 

It’s not a new concept by any means, but those four days hammered home for me the fundamental truth that the best marketing is often not marketing at all.

But, you ask, aren’t you a marketer? Yes, and I do believe there will always be a need for marketers and marketing for every brand, company and organization. Just not in the way marketing is currently perceived (or executed, in many cases). Marketing is not about trying to make your brand or product look different or better than it is, or trying to trick people into signing up for your email list or attending your event – it’s about showing people who you really are and why they should care.

As such, I believe a marketer’s most important function is often in helping organizations understand which of their experiences are most important and why, and how current and potential customers perceive those experiences. Let me use St. Joseph’s as an example to explain what I mean.

Long before we entered the hospital for the main event, we knew we would be welcoming Simon at St. Joseph’s due to insurance company mandates. In the lead-up to the birth, the unequivocal assessment from everyone (and I truly mean everyone) that we spoke with, from parents of children delivered at the hospital, to friends and friends-of-friends who had past experiences at St. Joseph’s, to our own doctor, was that the hospital was the gold standard for birthing in Denver – if you’re having a baby, try to do it at St. Joseph’s.

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Think for a moment how surprising it is that nobody in our circle had a negative thing to say about their experience. If you’ve spent more than four seconds on Twitter or Yelp over the past five years, you know that most people don’t mind sharing their negative opinions on pretty much everything. Compound that with the fact that healthcare receives, often for good reason, a large volume of gripes, and the hospital would appear to be facing an uphill battle in terms of perception.

From our frantic late-night calls to assess whether it was time to come in, to our first moments in the building, it was clear that St. Joseph’s would be making good on its brand promise. Every nurse assigned to us and to Simon was knowledgeable, personable and, most importantly, working at St. Joseph’s because they actually loved babies. Every doctor took great pains to explain to us each step in the process and make every decision as informed as possible, but ours alone. Every specialist exuded skill and authority, but also an underlying commitment to make sure we felt safe and calm.  

I fell in love with those people and that place because they took truly extraordinary care of us, and made it clear that our satisfaction was their most important objective. The sum total of what they did was provide a consistently memorable experience, and I can’t think of any flashy or expensive marketing tactics or campaigns that could come close to outweighing that experience.

This isn’t to say, again, that marketing is unnecessary. For most organizations, it is critical. I am saying that those who choose to focus on experience first may find that their marketing job becomes fundamentally easier. And can great marketing and advertising exponentially expand the reach of a wonderful experience? Absolutely. The order in which you approach the two, however, is important.

Experience First, Then Marketing

So how do you know if you’ve created the type of experience the gets people talking about your brand in the right way? As it so often does, it comes back to what people say about you when you’re not around. I like to use the following template as a rough rubric for the measurement of experience:

“I went to/visited/talked to __________ and the ________ was really ________.”

You can elicit these types of responses from customers, clients and, importantly (if you’re a business owner), your own staff, and analyze the content to see what bubbles to the surface. Be direct to get answers like “we are ridiculously good at ___________” or “__________ is something only we do well.” It’s important to note that a memorable experience can also be a negative one, and that understanding any negative experiences clients or customers have had with your business can be just as valuable as the positives.

You may look at this as data gathering and analysis, a marketing process, or generating core messages, another marketing process, and you would be right – but I would urge you to think outside of the common perception of “marketing” when it comes to experience. In other words, create and perfect the experience first, then use marketing to spread the word – don’t make the mistake of making your marketing more substantial than what lives behind it.

Because experience spreads by word-of-mouth, and neither experience nor word-of-mouth communication can be purchased or manufactured. That makes it both the most difficult type of “marketing” to pull off, but also the single most powerful tool you have. 

To use St. Joseph’s again, they have clearly listened to what their customers and peers identified as their best assets, and focused efforts to become the absolute best in those areas. The experience became so powerful that it began to generate positive word-of-mouth, and because it went in that order, every message was genuine (not bought and paid for, or offered as a quid pro quo). Although I don’t have access to their advertising and marketing budget, my guess is that the power of their experience allows them to spend less on push and pull marketing than at least some competitors.

You might be tempted to make the case that, because many patients don’t have a choice as to whether or not to use certain hospitals’ facilities, they don’t really need marketing anyway. In my experience, too many business and organizations would use this as an excuse to provide sub-par service. If you want an example of how this mindset can sink an entire industry, look no further than Uber and Lyft versus traditional taxi companies.

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Compare the positive buzz about the St. Joseph’s Women and Infant Center to the decidedly negative perception, perpetuated by both mass media coverage and word-of-mouth (horror stories), of professionals like car mechanics, insurance agents and yes, financial advisers, who are often branded with the reputation of taking advantage of people when they are at their most vulnerable. Just because you have a steady stream of people coming in the door doesn’t mean that providing a poor experience won’t cause major long-term problems.

So Why Isn’t Everyone Doing It?

OK, if it’s that easy, why doesn’t everyone just focus on building an unassailable experience that people can’t help but talk about? The first reason is that doing it right takes tremendous diligence, time and effort and a level of deep introspection that most organizations are unwilling to pursue. It is phenomenally difficult to look inward at our businesses and make the decisions to adjust things that we have grown attached to. 

The second is that focusing on experience first is not likely to result in short-term financial gain. In fact, if an organization is willing to take a big enough step to line up experience with brand promise, they must occasionally be prepared to take a loss. For example, when CVS Caremark announced the decision to remove cigarettes and tobacco products from its shelves in 2014, the company forecasted a $2 billion shortfall in sales as a result of the change.

And yet, the move needed to be made, as the company was re-branding itself as a one-stop-shop for health services, launching the new slogan “Health is Everything” in the same announcement. Words matter, but they must mirror actions.

And that’s why many organizations choose to spend marketing dollars over enhancements to their experience, as if the two are mutually exclusive. It’s just easier to spend money in an attempt to manufacture perception than to focus on and perfect an experience. My brother Joe Martin, partner at Red Six Media advertising agency in Baton Rouge, is fond of saying that advertising doesn’t make mediocre businesses good, it makes good businesses great, and he’s right. You have to be extraordinarily proud of and supremely confident in the product or service at the core of your business, or any and all marketing attempts will fail in the long run.

In the case of St. Joseph’s, they have a slight advantage in that the payoff at the birthing center is pretty great and bound to make people happy on their way out, but it is at its core a place where people go when they need help. Since most companies are designed to help people in some way, most offer an opportunity to create experiences that matter at the times customers, current or potential, are feeling most vulnerable. 

If you spend the time to make your experiences unique, consistent and memorable, they may eventually serve as the only marketing you’ll ever need.

A version of this post was originally published on the FPA Practice Management blog.