Experience before perception?

Saher Sidhom

Saher Sidhom

By saher sidhom, sahersidhom@googlemail.com


Are experiences more effective in changing behaviour than other marketing approaches that aim to change perception?


“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” Confucius 500 BC


This is a paper in the response to the question: Are experiences more effective in changing behaviour? As I set out to answer this question, purely out of curiousity, I discovered many arguments in favour and these were from many diverse fields. However, they all seem to arrive at a similar conclusion. Yes experience by far is better and is more efficient at changing behaviour than the classical thinking of aiming to change people’s perceptions and attitudes first before they change behaviour.

The social argument. The rise of first hand culture reframing trust & talkability.

In the past a brand was seen as a ‘short cut’ to decision making. People chose a brand because they identified with it and it acted as the ultimate key to choice whether emotional or rational. Today, this job is largely performed by Google. People use other people’s experiences as a proxy for making choice. Driven by technology, distrust in brands and disappointment in authority in general. Online provides the sum of all human experience in any field and particularly for brands. This gives birth to what others have called first hand culture. People choose to make up their own minds based on first hand experiences, either their own, that of other people and or even the brand’s own staff in the case of service brands. The implication for brands in two words is that of talkability & trust. If the people who had an experience with the brand – any experience – report on it, rant about it or hopefully rave about it that experience will be recorded, tagged, rated, clouded and reviewed online. This live constantly updatable record of people’s experiences with the brand makes a brand utterly vulnerable to whatever is being said about it. In a world where your brand is what people say it is – no brand owner can stand by the sidelines and have a silent opinion or ‘no comment’ or at least offer a counter positive experience to address the volatile online public. And no, advertising cannot do this job anymore. But experiences can. Because they all end up online not the ads. It’s online where first opinion, second opinion, expert opinion and own opinion are instantly com-probable and converging. If a brand has failed to manage its total experience these opinions will be made for it, in it’s absence and mercilessly by anyone who cares to comment.

The neurological argument. How your brain changes after an experience.

A leading neurogenesis researcher and professor of psychology at Princeton University, Professor Elizabeth Gould identified a number of fundamental changes as a result of experiences. Most importantly the brain physically changes as a result of an experience or an interaction. In a way, it took over 2509 years for neuroscience to prove what Confucius said 500 years BC. The changes that Gould and other neuroscientists  have identified include the physical change in the structure of the brain as a result of an active experience that is rich in external stimuli. Essentially new neural clouds are created or re-organized. Ideas in the head or ‘perceptions’ of a brand in marketing speak are no more than neural clouds in people’s brains. Every time an individual interacts with said brand or product literally their brain structure is re-calibrated or the neural cloud re-organised adding or taking new neurons. And this according the Gould and et al is best done by getting the individual to ‘do’ something , experience it instead of just being exposed to it or told about it.

The psychological argument for experiences.

An interesting lesson to learn about experiences and the ‘doing’ mentality comes from psychology. In contemporary psychology the recipe is really simple for changing behaviour. From needing more confidence to dealing with a job interview. Change is at the centre of a three step loop. Think, feel & do. For individuals to make any change they need to either think the change, feel it or do it. Psychologists strongly recommend that one should not wait to think the right stuff or feel like they want to quit smoking for example, it’s all about taking action – no matter how small or large – but taking action is what kicks the do, think, feel loop into gear and in that order. Once a small step is taken then new thoughts and feelings will follow. ‘Doing something about it’ is exactly what people should do. This lesson is pertinent for brands working on strategies that aim to change thinking or feeling via image led advertising. It is no where near as effective as inspiring, as inviting as helping people to do something or have an experience. I found a brand that did this strategically, creatively and above all effectively.

The branding argument.

The award winning campaign by AMV for Sainsbury’s in the UK set the standard for putting changing behaviour instead of changing beliefs into branding perspective. Try Something New Today is one of the most successful campaigns that ditched the tired thinking of nagging people into thinking or feeling something towards the brand in order to change behaviour. What it did instead was to invite people directly to ‘try’ and act. It used the various marketing channels overall as opportunities to inspire people to act with a constant stream of ideas and tools to use and apply.

The behavioural economics “nudge” argument.

Interestingly enough economists have their own discipline when it comes to getting people to change behaviour. Thaler & Sunstein authors of Nudge claim that instead of trying to change attitudes it’s easier to help people make the right choices or the choices that they previously found difficult by giving them a “choice architecture” that serves them the right option first and making it easy to act upon it. Almost without having to think about it. For example if you are trying to get people to eat healthily or to stop over indulging, providing them with healthy food as the first choice in the canteen  counter you are then guiding (nudging) them towards the preferred option. Another example is if you want them to eat less give them smaller plates. These are small examples but the thinking is actually quite profound. By getting people to have the ‘right’ kind of experience they build a ‘capability’ for the desired behaviour which later becomes the attitude they need to adopt. Maybe marketers can learn a thing or two from economists by starting with the behaviour first before the attitude.

The existentialist philosopher’s argument.

Needless to say there is a whole branch of philosophy dedicated to the do not say thinking. Sartre famously said once “to be is to do”. True existentialists never wish they are something else, they will it. They actively strive to change themselves by action and exercising their freedom to choose. Modern existentialism a la Sartre and De Beauvoir was born out of a basic and fundamental need to challenge the status quo and refusing to excuse oneself from taking action (& responsibility). Sartre was deeply motivated by fighting the Nazi Germans who were occupying Paris at the time and De Beauvoir by her refusal to submit to the expected and typical bourgeois behaviour of a lady of her breeding. The essential thing that we can learn from brand existentialism – if I may call it that – is that the ultimate truths are not those that we see elaborately expressed in ads but in the actions the brand takes and makes people take with it. Ads should never be an excuse for in-action.

The marketing argument. Experiences are a platform not an add on.

Most marketing campaigns use experiential & digital as an ‘add-on’ an event that somehow goes with the theme of the ad campaign. In most cases it’s simply no more than a tactical or a sales promotion exercise. This is old thinking. Experiences when placed at the core of the campaign become the most demonstrable way of brand values, it’s shared passions with it’s audiences and the best opportunity to show commitment to consumer. When Nike ‘did’ the Human Race the event was at the centre  of the campaign not the ads. The ads merely reported on it.
Experience in digital is even more essential for brands. A recent report (FEED 2009) identified that 65% of U.S. consumers report a digital experience changing their perception about a brand (either positively or negatively) and 97% of that group report that the same experience ultimately influenced whether or not they went on to purchase a product from that brand. Experiences are essentially contexts where the brand ‘behaves’ lives up to it’s core idea by doing things and of-course ‘delivers’. They are the embodiment of the brand values and ethos for example the Innocent Fruitstock, Nike + and the Red Bull Air Race.
In these examples experiential plays two key roles: primarily becoming a platform to build several stories or campaigns around. The Red Bull Air Race is an international spectacular touring event. When Red Bull comes to town planes fly under public bridges upside down. This sort of spectacle builds content to be distributed across multi-platform broadcasting channels from t.v. to You Tube.
Secondly, it also provides activation opportunities instore and beyond. An experience is more effective because the people who have it are 70% more likely to talk about it to friends than simply those watching a t.v. ad. And talkability eventually builds up and filters to the internet. Essentially not everybody have to have the experience but everybody can and does know about it.

Many arguments same conclusion.

There are diverse arguments for why experiences and doing are better for changing perceptions. The simple truth is that the total experience of a brand is no longer individual but collective and that experience is recorded, rated, reviewed and ranted about online – live. If a brand fails to manage it’s total experience then it’s simply open for whatever opinion might be voiced online. The cursory glance at the value of experiences outlined in this paper I hope is clear, varied and powerful.
From neuroscience to psychology, from branding to economics from philosophy to ancient wisdom nothing could be clearer. Even looking at brands that put experience at the core of their marketing such as Nike, Red Bull, Sainsbury’s, Innocent not to mention a plethora of digital brands from google, amazon to facebook that hardly spent a penny in advertising to succeed – they today are pure experiences and their success is indisputable on anybody’s measure.

We should ditch or seriously re-evaluate archaic communication & brand thinking.

Take AIDA for example: ‘action’ happens to be the last word in that model. I hope after reading this paper you have realised the fallacy of such a model that still in 2009 – 138 years since it’s inception – still permeates marketing, advertising and media thinking like a bad virus. The case for reversing this model and starting with action or experience instead of three very expensive letters is I submit a far better and a more effective strategy.
Some of the changes outlined in this paper should also shift how we think about the concept of branding. As someone once said: branding only works on cattle. The brand onion has gone pear shaped. It’s no longer the set of consistent values that we continue to delude ourselves by thinking we can ‘manage’ and control.

The brand of today is an experience.

A total experience that we maybe able to host or inspire but it’s an experience nevertheless. A behaviour, not an esoteric idea that lives mysteriously in people’s heads. If it is brands that we seek to build then there is no better way to do so than to simply do & deliver what the brand promises in marketing and elsewhere. Take the consumers with us. If brands were characters, then as they say in film – all character is action – and today the consumers are part of the action. They are participators not spectators. They are on the stage, interacting with the brand, co-creating it’s experience and it’s existence. But above all, they are shouting: ‘action’ …
… thankfully.
By saher sidhom, sahersidhom@googlemail.com


  1. […] Firstly, the fundamental shift that marketers need to make is that a brand is not an image that could be managed simply by changing the ad campaign. It is an experience. An experience in it’s widest sense of the word. A brand like IKEA is not managed by simply changing the ads it’s a brand that is fundamentally an experience in every aspect from the product to the packaging to what you could do with the product eventually. At it’s core is a social idea – democracy of design – this is translated into every aspect of that brand. It is an ethos, a commitment and an intention to improve the lives of the many people. (for more on my thinking on brand as an experience read this article). […]


  2. Very inspiring article – great work! I really believe in the psychological argument, and how you linked it to Confucius’ words.
    Coming from an industrial design background I find the last part particularly interesting. ”If it is brands that we seek to build then there is no better way to do so than to simply do & deliver what the brand promises in marketing and elsewhere.”
    To me this means ”don’t forget the product itself!”. The development of products and services can be managed to deliver stronger experiences, that communicate the brand.
    Imagine holding a short and smoothly shaped gear-stick, and noticing the distinct click as gears shift. These little experiences shape you perception of a brand.


Lämna ett svar

E-postadressen publiceras inte. Obligatoriska fält är märkta *