‘I’m lovin’ it’, ‘Be the fastest’, ‘Believe in better’, ‘Looking after your world’. Through advertising, brands often promote the perfect version of themselves to consumers and spend huge sums of money doing so. But what happens when, in reality, the customer experience is much less than perfect? Or, conversely, the experience is great, despite a poor initial expectation. This gap between expectation and reality is where customers can be won and lost and so is vitally important for businesses.

To get a better understanding of the opportunities and pitfalls of the gap, we talked to consumers who had recently had a positive or negative experience with a brand. The research shows us just what an impact one single customer experience can have on a brand.

Unsurprisingly, single customer experiences had little impact when they chimed with prior expectations – 98% of customers continued to have positive sentiment towards a brands after a positive experience, and 87% of those who had a bad perception of a brand continued to do so after a negative experience.

But when there is a gap between expectation and reality, a single customer experience can make or break brand perception. One positive customer experience was able to turn around a negative perception for nearly half of customers (49%). But this power can also work against brands – favourability dropped to just 43% in cases where customers with positive expectations had negative experiences.

Brands really are only as good as their last experience. When asked about the likelihood to be a customer of the brand in a year’s time, previous perception of the brand is less of an influencer than the last customer experience. In conclusion, not only can the after-effect of a positive or negative customer experience be the making or breaking of a brand, in fact, in the short term at least, customer experiences are the brand.

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To avoid falling into the trap, organisations need to ensure their ‘brand promise’ – what they ‘sell’ in marketing – is more aligned with the experience the company can consistently deliver. There is no point in a company creating a brand promise that is not achievable or based in reality. Our research shows that this is just destroying brand value. Instead companies should define the experience they want to provide us with, and crucially, are able to deliver – and then reflect this with their brand promise and advertising.