This post was originally published in 2014.
Brands are created by companies, but it’s the end customer who ultimately determines what the brand means to them. So, how do customers come to truly understand a brand and what it stands for?
Service brands are experienced on a personal level, with employees engaging customers during one-to-one social encounters, but many firms fail to include employee-customer interactions in their brand strategies. Because human-delivered services are performances and can vary from employee to employee, firms can find it difficult to create coherent experiences that drive home their brand imagery in a consistent manner from customer to customer.
For several years, I was part of a research team at Arizona State University that explored what brand managers can do to overcome this challenge. Through a series of consumer behavior experiments and a large-scale critical incident study that included dozens of service industries, we tested how customer brand experiences can be made more consistent through the behavior of frontline service employees. That is, we examined how service firms can recruit and train employees to internalize brand imagery in order to authentically bring the brand to life with customers in what we call “branded service encounters.”
Branded service encounters are defined as service interactions in which employee behavior is strategically aligned with the brand positioning. This strategic alignment can manifest along several dimensions, including frontline employees’ behavior, appearance and manner that reinforce brand meaning with customers.
In our research, we trained actors to pose as employees using brand-aligned (or brand-misaligned) scripts to align (or misalign) with a service firm’s brand image during everyday customer service transactions. For example, employees behaved in a formal and refined manner when representing a brand with a sophisticated image. Conversely, employees behaved in a more casual and less polished manner when representing more rugged brands. We found that aligning employees’ presented behavior with the brand personality successfully increased customers’ overall evaluations of the brand; including ratings of brand liking, desirability, trustworthiness, quality and willingness to shop with the brand. Additionally, we found that ratings of customer-based brand equity, or customers’ ratings of the brand as compared to other brands in terms of value for the money and brand uniqueness, also increased when employees engaged in branded service encounters. These results were explained by an increase in conceptual fluency, or the ease of processing the brand meaning, which is facilitated by brand-aligned employee behavior.
Expressly stated, customers understand brand meaning on a deeper level when employees behave in a manner that supports a consistent brand image. This rich understanding allows customers to evaluate brands more favorably, and thus, branded service encounters can be viewed as a competitive advantage for service firms. Interestingly, our results were more pronounced for unfamiliar or new-to-market brands that are still teaching customers who they are and what they symbolically represent. Alternatively phrased, lesser known brands have the most to gain by driving home evidence of the brand positioning at every customer touch point. Additionally, we found that authenticity in brand-aligned performances matters to customers, so we suggest that firms make the investment to recruit and train their staff to deliver natural and believable brand-aligned performances, which have the strongest effect on customer brand evaluations. The results of our research are summarized in the article: “Branded Service Encounters: Strategically Aligning Employee Behavior with the Brand Positioning” (volume 23, 7) in the Journal of Marketing.
Don’t miss her breakout Authentically Branded Service Experiences at Compete Through Service Symposium on Thursday, October 27th, 2016, led by Dr. Mary Jo Bitner, a co-author of Branded Service Encounters: Strategically Aligning Employee Behavior with the Brand Positioning.
Nancy J. Sirianni (Ph.D., Arizona State University) is the Jones Endowed Chair of Services Marketing and Associate Professor of Marketing at the Culverhouse College of Commerce at the University of Alabama. Nancy is working to understand and innovate the frontline customer experience. Her main research interests include retail and service marketing, employee-customer interactions, and service brand strategy. She is also interested in understanding the role of emotions and affective states on consumer behavior. Her research appears in top marketing journals including the Journal of Marketing and the Journal of Consumer Research, and has been featured in Forbes, Time, U.S. News & World Report, The Financial Express, Science Daily, NPR, and The Washington Post Magazine. She serves on the editorial review boards for the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, the Journal of Service Research, and the Journal of Business Research. Nancy has received numerous awards for her research and teaching, and was recognized as a Marketing Science Institute Young Scholar in 2015 for her early career contributions to the field of marketing. Her industry background includes eight years of service management, marketing research, and consulting experience with Insperity, BSI Consulting, and Accenture. She has taught Introduction to Marketing, Marketing Management, Marketing Research, and Service Marketing Strategy, and enjoys bringing marketing concepts to life in her undergraduate and MBA classes.
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