Not all that much sets apart the act of creating a compelling customer experience from the act of creating a compelling fictional world. Let’s see how, shall we?
Whether you’re talking Stephen King’s The Dark Tower or China Miéville’s Bas Lag trilogy; Star Wars or Dr Who; Neuromancer or Blade Runner – the thing that ties them together and makes their greatness possible is, simply, their world-building. In these works their creators have spent hundreds of hours creating the hows, wheres, whys, whens and whats of fictional worlds that succeed magnificently in being compellingly real.
Now here’s the thing: we suggest that building a brand – and by extension, a fine customer experience – has a huge amount in common with building a world. Here are our top three takeaways.
1. A brand reimagines the world
Filed under so obvious it’s counterintuitive: world-building efforts never create worlds that are entirely unlike our own. It stands to reason – for one, no matter how outlandish you go, it patently isn’t possible to imagine a world that has nothing in common with our own; also, like if you could do such a thing, nobody would have any way to relate to it. Fail.
No. Compelling world-building poses a wonderful set of what-if questions. What if food didn’t cost anything? What if racism didn’t exist? What if people could be truly free to choose their gender? Iain M Banks’s Culture series asks, among others, what a society would be like without any resource scarcity. Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun wonders what inequality would be like at the very extremes of humanity’s existence.
Take a look at what you’re trying to do with your brand. If you’re heading in the right direction, your offering answers some kind of what-if – it imagines a different world. If you’re developing a low-cost, high-nutrition food bar, you’re imagining a world in which everybody can access the nutrients they need for health. If you’re making a dating app, you’re imagining a world in which people can more easily find togetherness.
Let’s pick a personal example. Here at Zailab our app has three main differentiators: AI-driven routing and matching; supremely easy setup; and consumption-based pricing. How do we know these are the right differentiators? Each poses a sizable what-if question.
AI routing: what if you could always be assured of getting the best person for your needs? Easy setup: what if all the needless complications of the world were stripped away? Consumption-based pricing: what if you only got charged for exactly what you used – never more?
Good what-ifs, in other words, extend well past your own offering – they provide a glimpse of a different way of existing.
That’s pretty cool, don’t you think?
2. A brand has a culture
A believable fictional society is a hot pot of ethics, values and customs – together, they are the hand that guides that society forward in harmony. Absent a good culture, you can bet that society is going to crash and burn. (Fun exercise: what sort of culture do you think prevailed in Mordor?)
It’s worth making some distinctions here. By ethics, we’re not talking so much the philosophical branch, but an overriding system of principles that forms a set of guidelines for moral behavior in decision-making. Ethics tend to translate into laws.
Contrast this with values, which are personal beliefs that guide an individual’s behaviour. (In their strongest guise, values interact with ethics to become a code of honour. Like, y’know how Batman refuses to kill anybody no matter what? Yeah. That.)
Customs, finally, are the traditional acts that are sort of standard across a cultural group. Think everything from how birthdays and weddings are celebrated down to how sports are enjoyed and even the little things like a simple potluck.
The point is, if you want everything in your brand to be a sum greater than its parts, if you want everybody who makes up your brand to pull together and produce greatness, you need to look to your ethics, values and customs.
How does your business behave? What are your no-goes? How do you want to improve the world?
What kind of staff do you want to attract? How do they align with your business and how do they hold it to its own promises? How do you ensure they keep growing?
Finally, how do you draw everybody together? How do you celebrate (the big wins and the little)? What are your company traditions?
In other words, what makes your world beautiful and compelling? (Here at Zailab, we celebrate our wins at sorta literally the top of the world.)
3. A brand offers its customers a journey
‘I wisely started with a map,’ said the late JRR Tolkien of his incredible undertaking in the creation of Middle Earth. And indeed, despite its heavy (heavy) leaning on mythology, it’s an incredible feat of world-building.
But we wouldn’t remember Tolkien for his world-building if first we didn’t remember him for something else: telling a damn fine story.
This is a big one. Whether you’re looking at The Lord of the Rings or The Matrix, the incredible worlds that underpin them would be interesting and intricate toys without the incredible journeys their characters take through them.
It’s wise to think of your own brand as the world within which to create journeys. Customer experience and journey maps are pretty standard tools nowadays, but what a lot of them miss is the context of the brand world. Your brand personality and voice, your staff and their perception of this world – all of that and more form a part of this living context.
Because here’s the thing: the world and the journey are one thing, in that they cannot be separated. And it’s not just that the world is the set-dressing for the journey – rather, it provides the rules of engagement for that journey, and it reacts and changes in response to that journey.
This is a bigger point than we can flesh out fully in one article, but suffice to say that we’re going to segue neatly into a pitch for our next post: what the hero’s journey, laid out by literature professor Joseph Campbell, can do for your customer journey.
Until next time, fellow world builders.