Now Is the Time to Audit Your Brand Experience
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Now Is the Time to Audit Your Brand Experience

Now is the time to embrace change.

In the mid ‘90s, I was working at Yamamoto Moss and developed a research method to study, measure, and improve experiences. We tested it first on Northwest Airlines (you might remember that great Minnesota-based international brand). Then we got the call to test this methodology on a Royal Caribbean cruise.

First, some context: The Experience Economy by Joe Pine and Joseph Gilmore had just come out. The idea was that experiences were at the center of social and utility value for corporations. But when you’re in the moment and see what’s coming, it’s hard to know how far ahead you are of popular business culture.

We conducted an elaborate study of a seven-day cruise. We had a team of seven—three people on the cruise and four more participating in the analysis and report of findings. The cruise passengers documented their experiences in journals using an expectations model (think of it like a mental image of the future). We experienced almost every single moment within a typical cruise and brought back piles of data to analyze.

And sometimes, the ideas are right there in front of you and cost nothing, even as they increase value for both the business and the human side.

In short, we did an audit of the experience. The result wasn’t a journey map, but rather a random walk through the experience of a cruise for three different personas: experienced cruiser, second-timer, and rookie cruiser. We identified hundreds of ways to increase the value of a cruise experience to create more consumer loyalty, revenue, and staff engagement.

One of the recommendations centered on the cruise photographers. It’s a practice you see everywhere, from a Valley Fair ride to haunted houses and Disney theme parks. On this cruise, you could buy a photo of yourself with the captain or next to a plywood replica of a ship’s wheel—but you had to stand in line. For two of the three personas, this “line you up to take a photo to sell back to you” thing was an annoyance; most experienced passengers skipped it.

Our adaptation was a shift to wandering photographers, who captured more candid photos as passengers embarked, drank their first daiquiri, or relaxed poolside with friends. It was intended to create memories, rather than posed moments. Simple idea; sounds like it should work, but you never know until it’s fully implemented.

I left Yamamoto Moss soon after this to found Capsule and never heard how, or even if, the idea had been put into practice. Then, just a few days ago, I heard that “that little idea” not only had been implemented but was wildly successful, quickly spreading to a sister cruise line and its competitors.

Why does this matter?

On the inventor side, ideas like this are hard to protect. When you suggest different behavior, be prepared to watch your competitors adopt it. You might not see much of an inventor’s advantage. It can still be worth doing.

On the human side, this might be a great thing if it improves the experience and captures more memories for the passenger. Photographers feel more valued, passengers take home a less staged version of their cruise experience.

On the business side, it could boost revenue.

Finding an invention that benefits the business side but has no social and/or utility value for the human side is an obvious miss. Yet there are so many inventions—products, services, experiences, or moments—that ignore this fundamental point. You can avoid this mistake by asking “Who are we designing this for?”

And sometimes, the ideas are right there in front of you and cost nothing, even as they increase value for both the business and the human side. While the change of photographic style seems simple looking back on it, the idea contributed to the top-line revenue and had no impact on costs.

Those ideas are out there for your business. You just have to be willing to see them.

Of course, only 12 years after our experience, the iPhone showed up, and now everyone is a wandering photographer. If you’re not looking for improvements to your experience, you can bet someone else will find them and get there before you. When was the last time you audited your experience?

Read more from this issue

This story appears in the Aug./Sept. 2020 issue with the title “Innovation at Sea.”

Aaron Keller ( is co-founder and managing principal of Capsule (, a Minneapolis branding agency. He co-authored The Physics of Brand,