What exactly are we selling today?

The traditional marketing approach—you put an ad up, I get excited about your product, I go to a store and buy your product—is already on its last legs.

The arena of competition today is the customer experience—not just with apps but with phone support, sales, and even the process of filling out forms.

Moreover, we're going to continue to see an increased shift in focus from products to experiences. And we're going to see the traditional silos—advertising, loyalty, sales, support, and so on—break down as brands focus on crafting seamless customer experiences that drive purchases, retention, loyalty, and positive word-of-mouth, by rewarding customers every step of the way.

Here's why that change is accelerating and why it matters for your brand.

Experiences That Make or Break You

Today's customers have a wealth of choices about how, where, and when to engage with your brand. They have an equally broad range of options for spreading word-of-mouth—positive or negative. Just as small-town bakeries live in fear of negative Yelp reviews, corporate CEOs face angry stakeholders when social media campaigns attack their brands. That is the flipside of addressability at scale... You've got to build your reputation at scale, too.

But that building process doesn't have to be a struggle, and companies that get it right are rewarded with loyal, outspoken customers.

Take Amazon customer support, for example. You know the company is going to listen to your problem then make it right. Excited to call customer support? I am when it's for Amazon!

For as long as most of us can remember, customer support was a necessary evil that companies tried to offset with positive traits in other areas. But Amazon took those traditional expectations of customer support—"I'm going to wait behind a line of other calls, and may never get to a live person. They're not going to be able to help me. They'll drop the call."—and flipped them on their heads to create a support experience so positive that it actively sells the Amazon brand.

That experience is just as much a part of Amazon's marketing and loyalty building as the Prime program is—in fact, probably more so.

Yet marketers rarely get to play in the world of customer support or, for that matter, in the worlds of in-store sales, e-commerce, or form processing. And that needs to change because a seamlessly designed online shopping cart or a painless application form sometimes has more influence over net promoter score (NPS) than the product itself.

Shifting Loyalty

When a company screws up something as seemingly small as an application form or a loyalty program, that error can disrupt the whole onboarding process as well as longer-term goals like loyalty and word-of-mouth.

Make a process too hard on your customers—especially when your competitors are throwing their weight behind a more intuitive approach—and you might as well be running through the city tearing down your own ads.

We're seeing this in the travel industry in a big way right now. A growing number of travelers are switching from traditional frequent flier programs to loyalty programs offered by credit card companies and online travel agencies like Expedia. Those programs let travelers earn points not only for air travel but also for car rentals, hotel rooms, cruises, and other purchases then redeem those points toward any of those purchases for future trips.

In response to this pressure, several airlines recently switched from miles-based frequent flyer programs to ones that reward dollars spent. Those decisions have infuriated frequent travelers who weren't warned of the change and now drive even more of those travelers into the arms of more versatile loyalty programs—most offered by online service providers whose only "product" is a smoother booking process.

A traditional brand might have a brilliant TV campaign and worldwide name recognition, but as in the case of airlines, many brands are no longer the sole owners of their own purchase funnel.

To compete in this arena of experiences, these brands will need to radically update the customer experiences they provide.

A Year of Customer Experiences

More and more brands are beginning to realize those truths, both from other brands' tales of success and failure, and from their own analytics. All that data is pointing in the same direction toward the need for customer experiences that drive conversions and loyalty.

Quality products still matter, of course. They always will. But in a marketplace where several products are roughly equal, the brand that builds a great experience around that product is the one that will emerge the winner.

This year, your smartest competitors will integrate every customer touchpoint into a seamless experience that sells itself. If your brand aims to keep up, you'll get there first.

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image of Mark Grilli

Mark Grilli is vice-president of product marketing for Document Cloud at Adobe, where he is responsible for worldwide marketing strategy and implementation of Adobe Document Cloud and Acrobat DC. Prior to joining Adobe, he was a co-founder of an e-learning startup.

LinkedIn: Mark Grilli