Experience vs. Expect

experience, expect, restaurant

Experience, experience, experience. Since the 1990’s experts have been talking about experience as the critical component for brands. In 1999, Joseph Pine and James Gilmore wrote The Experience Economy laying the foundation for decades of conversation on this topic. Unlike many books that make a splash in the brand world, the ideas in this one have flourished as a platform, living on and growing as new thinkers add their ideas.

Experience can’t be commoditized. There can be many similar experiences, such as occasions at a fast casual restaurant, but it is something that each guest takes in personally. They process it in their own way and add it to a mental catalogue of experience types they have a unique perspective on.

If you’ve never spent time in the southeastern US, you may expect Famous Dave’s or even Dickie’s as an acceptable standard.

This is because there are multiple thought processes humans have add up to experience. We don’t take in our visit to Famous Dave’s with our eyes alone. We smell the smoke and sauce, the see the decor and the people, we hear the music. Ultimately we interact with a host and a server, maybe a bartender. There is conversation and feedback, maybe a joke and a laugh. Where do we sit? Maybe near a rowdy group or a table with young children. And yes, we eat and drink.

And at each step of the way we are recalling memories related to Famous Dave’s, what we know about other barbecue restaurants and food, bars and restaurants. We index against our likes and dislikes. This experience relates directly to what is created by the sum of life we have lived before this visit: what do we expect? Expectations can be more powerful than our senses.

What we ‘expect’ is rarely the friend of positive experience. They more we expect as a consumer, the easier it is to be let down. The last movie you saw based on a glowing review probably didn’t live up to the hype. Simply put, this is because you expect greatness and the greatness of your imagination outperformed the film itself.

What do you expect from a barbecue restaurant? Thinking about the category brings to mind some very real sensations. If you’ve never spent time in the southeastern US, you may expect Famous Dave’s or even Dickie’s as an acceptable standard. Those in Austin, Alabama or Georgia expect something wholly different. Noise and music, yes. But the food experience is completely different.

This is why the focus has shifted from the experience economy to the expectation economy. Every brand has a product that meets the basic need. Consumers expect that any restaurant will provide a meal. For 20 years, brands have grown based on improvements to the experience. But consumers have now come to expect a baseline of experience as part of their meal. Expectations are fueled by promises made by the brand, experiences elsewhere and by research or information the consumer has gathered independently, such as Yelp reviews.

The challenge now is to deliver on the base level of the category expectation, and to add to the experience in novel ways. This upends expectations and volleys the ball back to competitors leaving them the job of defending their own experience against this new level of service or delight. Only brands that continuously push forward like Domino’s Pizza will be able to rise above what the consumers expect in a low experience category. Order with a tweet and have it delivered by a custom car with a heated cabin? How does the neighborhood pizza place keep up with that new expectation?

Author: Adam Pierno

Adam Pierno has a one-of-a-kind perspective on restaurant and CPGs. He investigates the connections between strategy, media, digital and business goals employing social media listening, analysis and traditional consumer research to find meaningful insights for brands thinking about their futures.