In memoriam: what holidays can teach us about marketing

A few years ago, I went to Cuba, which makes for a pretty competitive dinner party story (‘I see your weekend in Cancun and raise you a week in Havana’). When I listen to myself tell the story from my memories, the experience was amazing. Street parties, dancing, $1 bottles of Havana Club and cigars galore.

But if I really stop and think about it in detail, the experience of being in Cuba was rubbish. The food was terrible, hotels sucked, it was near impossible to get anywhere on public transport, you had to bribe baggage handlers to put your bags on planes and the service was shocking. 

Interestingly, none of these aspects have stuck in the retelling of my Cuba experience from memory. My ‘remembering self’ has discarded a huge amount of what my ‘experiencing self’ actually went through in building my story. Philosopher Alain De Botton describes this idea in The Art of Travel, where he notes that the valuable elements of life are easier to experience in anticipation and memory than in reality, because these forms omit and compress, cutting away the distracting and dull bits, drawing our attention to the critical bits and lending life a stronger vividness.

The fascinating thing about this idea of experiencing versus remembering is that it also plays a massive role in a commercial setting. The experiences we have with businesses—the messages we see, the things we buy, the services we use—are all subject to the same filtering and impact of memory. Some elements live on to become the story of our experience with businesses, but most are discarded.

What’s critical here is that there’s an overwhelming amount of experimental evidence, particularly from behavioural economists like Daniel Kahneman, to show that it’s ‘the remembering self’ that makes future decisions about what to do. 

Actual experience really isn’t important at all in determining how we will react in the future. The idea that  memory makes decisions probably feels intuitively correct to you as you. But there is a massive disconnect evident when we apply this truth to how we operate in business.

In a business, the focus and desire is usually on understanding and designing experiences as they happen; capturing feedback in real time, walking through processes with people to discover ‘pain points’, designing services in co-creation with an experiencing consumer. Indeed, the whole ‘CX design’ industry focuses heavily on these concepts.

And, to a degree, they are valuable, because smoothing out processes and taking away hurdles all helps to create experiences that are likely to build better memories. 

But the problem is that we’re too focused on the experience as it happens. We tend to be dismissive of looking at people’s memories of events as ‘untrue’ when this flawed recollection is exactly what we really need to understand if we’re to make a difference to how people feel about us. Focusing too greatly on the experiencing self opens us up to taking a misstep as a business.

A while back, a client of ours underwent a significant redesign of its service experience to make it more human-centred. This involved many hours with customers, walking through experiences, observing behaviour and co-designing optimal elements right across the service delivery. The outcome was amazing, but the problem is that it didn’t change commercial fortunes at all. The business was losing money on providing this amazing service. When we looked at the issue through the De Botton lens of anticipation and memory, however, the issue was much more apparent. In remembering their last experience in the client’s category, almost everyone, no matter what brand or what level of service they bought, had a great experience. As long as the service was delivered broadly on time and without incident, people were happy and all the enhancements to the experience didn’t really add to the story of the brand experience. 

In anticipating the service, people didn’t want to pay for the enhancements either. Simple ideas of cost and timeframe were the big decision principles. That’s not to say these improvements did not have a place. They did make the experience better at the time of experiencing.  But this wasn’t the point at which people made decisions about buying these extras. 

The overarching concept here is that we often mistrust our own humanness in thinking about how we design brand and business experiences. We get too scientific about the process and forget about the science of how our brains operate. 

We don’t need to iron out all the bribes and rusty buses from the Cuba we offer customers. We just need to identify which bits deliver the rum and cigars. 

  • Andrew Lewis is managing director of The Research Agency. 
  • This story originally appeared in the March/April edition of NZ Marketing. 

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