Cannibalizing Your Own Experiences

The way strategists and designers theorize about human experience — and specifically customer experience, which is humans in the contextual role of “customer” — is often disconnected from the way business leaders think about strategy and business models. But in practice, for substantive and sustainable results, the efforts must be aligned.

For example, I’ve been vegan for nearly 23 years. The plant-based food revolution of the past few years is thrilling to see. But I see brands executing poorly against it. Dunkin’ and Starbucks, for example, both have introduced breakfast sandwiches with Beyond Meat vegan sausages or with Just Egg, but the sandwiches themselves, as merchandised, are not vegan. So vegan-minded customers who are drawn in by the new products have to know to order them with a whole set of modifications and off-menu tricks. How much more welcoming would it have been for the brands to simply add vegan sandwiches to their menu? People transitioning to eating more plant-based foods wouldn’t object that the bread is vegan, and it would be a far better experience for the actual vegan customers. (And by the way, the number of vegans in the U.S. grew by 600% from 2014 to 2017 while 500,000 people have pledged to eat vegan for the first time for the whole month of January 2021, so we’re talking about non-trivial market share that’s shown no signs of slowing down.) Moreover, it would encourage vegans who weren’t already fans of Dunkin’ and Starbucks to come and buy those sandwiches, meaning incremental purchases the brands never had before. And the kicker? People who aren’t vegan-inclined already had meal options at these brands, so making the vegan-ish sandwich not vegan may actually be cannibalizing (sorry) the sales of the other meal options.

Another example is the trend of high-quality non-alcoholic mixers like Seedlip along with a growing population of people who, whether over short spans of time or long periods, choose not to drink alcohol. (Another non-trivial market segment. Pre-packaged mocktails and other non-alcoholic beverages have been on the rise and are expected to continue growing, while an estimated 15% of Americans planned to participate this year in “Dry January.” How many have stuck to it in the wake of the past week’s political turmoil is worth wondering, but the intent was there.) This experience and strategy disconnect would be like a cocktail bar owner bringing Seedlip in only to offer it mixed it into alcoholic beverages. Meanwhile there’s a group of would-be customers who have not been catered to who might otherwise patronize the establishment, and they’re not being accommodated. That’s incremental business, and the bar in this example would be turning up its nose at it — in this economy?!

I witnessed this pattern up-close myself, when I was heading customer experience and product at Magazines.com. The company had historically pushed hard in every channel to sell cheap People magazine subscriptions because they were viewed as loss leaders that would get customers in the door, but something wasn’t working out right in the equation. There were too many cancellations as the first terms were coming up for renewal.

Eventually a colleague and I crunched enough numbers to work out what was happening: customers were buying the cheap first-term subscriptions in lieu of a steeper-priced renewal (where the company hoped to make its money back). We also saw why. When the subscribers to People magazine were getting their renewal notices by email, those emails often had cross-sell promotions — including, sometimes, for People magazine. We were doing nothing to exclude those promotions for first-term rates from the renewal emails. Once we added programming logic to the renewal emails to exclude promotions for the title being renewed, cancellations went down, and renewals went up. If I remember correctly, it meant gaining about a million dollars a year across channels. It sounds pretty easy to recognize in retrospect, but it is this holistic way of thinking about the entire business model and how it is presented to every customer, one by one, that makes it work in the details.

These three examples have in common that they are relevant to the customers — in other words, the humans you do business with. When I talk about meaningful human experiences, relevance is a form of meaningfulness. Showing that you have a sense about what is suitable, appropriate, and timely for customers helps them feel understood. And being understood is tantamount to being seen as human beings.

Leaders, don’t cannibalize your business success. Think it through, experience by experience. It could be costing you a lot of money to ignore providing better experiences, while it’s also costing you the goodwill and loyalty you might have enjoyed from customers who would appreciate having a relevant experience provided for them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.