You don’t go bridal dress shopping every day. But when you do, you can learn a lot about experience excellence.

In fact, we were willing to pay more for a dress we could have purchased for slightly less at another store — all because of the way the owners at one retailer made us feel.

Building Emotional Connections

The differences between the stores extended beyond the convivial offering of champagne (which we eagerly accepted), beyond the carefully curated dress selections (which we greatly appreciated).

It was more about emotional connection.

At a three-month-old business framed against the Spanish moss-draped magic of historic Savannah, two novice retailers at Mary Elizabeth’s Bridal successfully aligned with our purchase motivations.

They knew, almost intuitively, how to help the bride-to-be fulfill deep, unconscious desires about her wedding. They simply “got it.”

And as CEOs and CMOs struggle to reimagine retail amid the “retail apocalypse” narrative, the lessons learned are worth sharing.

The Science of Customer Emotions

For the past several years, the team at Motista has been championing the idea that an emotional connection matters more than customer satisfaction.

Motista is San Francisco-based consumer intelligence firm that claims to have scientifically mapped the genome of human emotions and identified those most predictive of purchase behavior across dozens of categories.

According to Motista CEO Scot Magids, “When we talk about satisfaction, we’re talking about a measurement of quality, price value, and whether customers trust a particular company to buy from. When we talk about emotional connection, we’re talking about how a brand transcends those functional benefits of satisfaction and actually connects with the deepest and most important, intrinsic motivations of a customer.”

Brands Fulfill 3 Emotional Needs

Motista isn’t alone in its belief that emotions remain paramount — even in a data-driven, journey-mapping, growth hacking, analytics-obsessed world.

Simon Glynn, director of Europe and the Middle East at Lippincott, shared his insights on emotion in the context of customer attitudes and decision-making in an interview earlier this year. A New York City-based creative consultancy, Lippincott’s mission includes building brands that emotionally connect.

“Emotion is when customers know what they want, over and above what any objective and analytical scoring system would tell them. In this strict sense, it is not subject to reason and is generally not rational; but that does not make it either unreasonable or irrational in the everyday sense of those words.

“In a brand context, we see three broad emotional needs that brands help to fulfill: to simplify the frenetic world around us so it is more manageable, to believe in something bigger than what is in front of us, and to belong to a group beyond our family and friends,” he explained.

Emotions + Bridal Dresses = OMG

Buying a wedding dress is one of life’s most emotionally draining experiences. From body image issues and cultural expectations to money-related worries and friendship and family issues, there are countless things to throw brides and those who love them into a swivet.

Yes, “finding the perfect wedding dress is as much, if not more, of an emotional journey” as actually saying, “I do.”

There are exceptions, of course. My oldest daughter saw a dress in a bridal magazine, Googled a local retailer who carried it, set up an appointment and bought it on the spot — refusing to even try on any alternates.

But most people aren’t that decisive, including Daughter No. 3, who tends to have trouble deciding what sandwich to order when we go out for lunch.

‘What Do You Think?’

Arielle likes to debate, consider, compare options, weigh her decision against the possible reactions of every person she knows. She makes lists, balancing pros and cons. She’ll develop “what if” scenarios.

So the fact that this wonderfully indecisive young woman decided to buy the first of the 57 dresses she tried on during a whirlwind weekend dress shopping extravaganza says something amazing … about the retailer.

Emily Johnson, a recent college graduate, and Jessica Stanley, a teacher-turned-entrepreneur, own Mary Elizabeth’s Bridal. They say their goals are “to foster an elegant and peaceful atmosphere for brides searching for their perfect gown” and create a “breathtaking experience.”

Based on the customer comments on their website, they’re succeeding. “The customer is treated like the most important person in the world,” one woman wrote.

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“I had been casually dress shopping somewhere else and felt pressured and put in gowns that were totally against anything I had said I wanted. Jessica listened to what I had in mind,” another explained.

So what happened at the other bridal stores we visited? One owner explained how she only sold a particular dress to “strippers and other bimbos,” making us wonder what she’d say about us when we left. At another store, the salesclerk had absolutely no personality. It was like being serviced by a bot. A third store was so disorganized and crowded there was no place to wait when we arrived 10 minutes early for our appointment.

Saying Yes … To Experience Excellence

Marketers today spend an inordinate amount of time talking about customer-centricity and all its nuances.

Way back in 2010, Forrester defined customer experience as “how customers perceive their interactions with your company.” Good experiences are useful (deliver value), usable (make it easy to find and engage with the value) and enjoyable (emotionally engaging so that people want to use them).

But as Arke CTMO Chris Spears acknowledges, “we’ve been talking about CX for nearly two decades now, and it doesn’t seem like we’re consistently or positively evolving customer relationships.”

Spears supports a bigger, bolder focus on brand experience, which tracks and maps both online and offline interactions.

It considers a person’s interactions with your brand as well your competitors. And it focuses on a bigger vision of the overall impact your brand has on the people associated with it.

In addition, brand experience extends beyond the awareness and acquisition journey to encompass the sales journey, the product/service usage journey (support), and, lastly, the loyalty/advocacy journey.

In short, Brand experience encourages a big-picture lens to evaluate experience in all of its contexts while also assessing the impact it has on every person affiliated with your brand, whether that person is a customer, employee, supplier, vendor or other stakeholders.

Back to Arielle’s Dress

Arielle started her wedding dress search early last Saturday. I accompanied her along with two of her three sisters — a trio accurately described as opinionated, expressive, and prone to snap judgments.

So what did Mary Elizabeth’s do right?

First, it made the experience manageable. The store is artfully and comfortably arranged, and every gown fell into the same, moderate price range. There were no $3,000 or more dresses hidden among the selections, making it possible for the customer to try on everything that intrigued her without worrying about cost.

Secondly, the owners helped us stay focused on that “something bigger than what is in front of us” that Glynn mentioned above. The owners talked as much about family and Arielle’s plans for the future as buying a dress itself.

Finally, they exercised patience — allowing Arielle to deal with her roller coaster of emotions, experience other bridal shops, and ultimately make a decision that was unpressured, authentic and “right” for her.

Full Circle Experience

Arielle says 'Yes'

Arielle says ‘Yes’

At the seventh bridal store on the second day of our dress quest, the unexpected happened. The final dress Arielle tried on was the first one she started with — The Dress, the one that made her feel exactly how she wants to feel on her wedding day.

Arielle fell in love with the dress all over again. But she waited to say yes.

She wanted to buy from the women at Mary Elizabeth’s. It was a remarkable show of loyalty considering she visited there for the first time just a day earlier.

Although the dress cost slightly more at Mary Elizabeth’s, the experience the store offered was phenomenal. What we experienced outweighed the minor price difference.

Still, when we mentioned the cost differential, the owners at Mary Elizabeth’s quickly offered to price match.

We would have bought the dress from them even if they hadn’t.

But the fact that they did just underscores how well this store is mastering excellent experience.

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.