My most meaningful lesson about brand experience occurred on the Hell Hole.

The Hell Hole, invented as The Rotor in the late 1940s, was a popular amusement park ride through the 1990s.

If you ever rode it, you’d remember it: it was a large, upright barrel that spun rapidly. Because of centrifugal force, riders stuck to the wall — even after the floor dropped 8-feet.

An ‘Experience’ Isn’t Enough

As a child, my daughter loved this headache inducing, stomach turning thing. So one day at the park she persuaded us to take her on it again … and again … and again.

It was an experience, to be sure. In fact, I remember it as clearly now as the day it happened two decades ago. So it was also memorable.

But simply providing an experience, even an unforgettable one, doesn’t guarantee happy customers.

Sometimes it just leaves them queasy.

Defining Better Brand Experience

Before customer experience was a thing — when businesses still boasted about things like “Service With a Smile” — there were already clear expectations between buyers and sellers.

Customers expected to be heard, to have their problems addressed, to be treated with respect. And, yes, they expected empathy, understanding, and the requisite smile.

Digital technologies transformed some of those expectations, creating a wall between buyers and sellers in the early days of e-commerce. Remember how unnerving it was when there was no way to phone Amazon customer service?

But as channels multiplied, so did contact options. Email eventually ceded to faster options like chat, and businesses realized some people still liked to pick up the phone.

So how come too few of us are smiling now, regardless of whether we’re buying or selling?

‘Smiling Is Work’

Two years ago, Penn State organizational psychologist Alicia Grandey and two of her colleagues released “a proposal to eradicate emotional display rules.” They called smiling an invisible form of work that we should eradicate from the workplace.

“Requiring positive emotions from employees induces dissonance and depleted resources, which hinders task performance and threatens well-being,” they wrote.

Now I can be as grumpy as the next person, but I’ve never looked at my barista at Starbucks and wanted “to smack that smile off her face.”

Contrary to Grandey’s research, I welcome a smile. And when I was on the other side of the counter, I was happy to give them — no charge.

As SAP executive Kaan Turnali, maintains, “Smiling isn’t just something your face does. It communicates your state of mind.”

He continues:

“Most important: A smile is an invitation. Smiling sets a tone. It establishes a rapport and initiates trust, the cornerstone of every business relationship.”

Creating Better Brand Experiences

So how do we create better brand experiences — ones we remember because they left a lasting, positive impact? Ones that leave us feeling connected to a brand in a way that inspires not only loyalty but also advocacy?

Let me share a personal experience. I spent the past weekend traveling — an always unpredictable, often stressful experience.

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As I settled into the rental car after a flight to New York City’s JFK Airport, my husband asked an ominous question. “Where’s my iPad?”

Obviously, it wasn’t in the car. And when we tracked the device on my phone, it was clear it wasn’t on the plane on which we arrived. All we could tell was that it was somewhere in the JetBlue terminal.

One Employee Makes a Difference

So I returned to the JetBlue baggage claim center, where multiple company representatives suggested the obvious. “Go online a file a missing property report.”

Feeling frustrated and anxious, I started to walk away … only to run into another JetBlue employee. “What’s wrong?” he asked. When I explained, he responded with a smile and an offer to track the iPad himself.

Using the image on my phone, he searched multiple floors of the terminal before locating it in a locked lost and found near the gate we had exited.

He found someone with a key, returned my device, and rushed off to his next staff before I could offer him anything more than my sincere thanks.

The Key to Brand Experience Excellence

Gartner Analyst Ed Thompson describes experience as “the watchword of our age.”

“Leaders across every part of the enterprise are claiming to place experience at the center of their strategies. But talking is not the same as doing,” he said.

To reap the rewards you need to have a comprehensive strategy that recognizes the value of excellent experiences.

You don’t want to leave your customers spinning over an unforgettable yet uncomfortable experience.

And you can’t think offering a smile alone is enough to make lasting impact (although it’s better than greeting your customers with a frown.)

Authentic Customer Care

What differentiates one company from another is its ability to relate to people in an empathetic, compassionate, human way.

Casual restaurant chain Pret A Manger only employs “people who are friendly and lively… people who are good-humored by nature.” Employees are trained to use personal phrases they are comfortable with and treat customers as if they are guests in your own home.

This goes beyond the rote “Have a nice day” culture, company executives said.

Customers want reassurance, empathy, and clear solutions. As a brand, providing those three things helps deepen your relationship with your customers, build loyalty, and minimize frustration.

By hiring the right people, supporting them with the right technologies, and recognizing the value of human connections, you’ll have the foundation to deliver excellent experiences.

Noreen Seebacher is the content evangelist at Arke, where she researches, writes and continues her long career in news reporting as a brand journalist. Noreen lives in Beaufort, South Carolina with her husband, her dog and four formerly homeless cats.