As the world continues to evolve, it's crucial for businesses to keep up. In episode 559 of the Marketing Smarts podcast, George B. Thomas and Allen Adamson discuss the importance of adapting to changing times.

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Discover in this episode how to adjust your daily routines to meet the actual needs of your clients or customers, and create a memorable experience that drives growth.

And why you should do that is this: Success is not just about what product you offer, but also how you connect with your audience in meaningful ways.

See the full podcast transcript, below, for a host of eye-opening—and useful—insights. 

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Full Transcript: A 'Brand Differentiation Through Experience Innovation' Conversation

George B. Thomas: Today we are going to have a conversation around brand differentiation through experience innovation conversation with Allen Adamson. You might be wondering, "Is George excited?" Of course I am. I'm excited to bring you this interview because today we're going to be talking about what you, the B2B marketer, need to know about such things as brand differentiation and experience innovation. We're going to talk about the hurdles, what success looks like, what keeps Allen up at night, how to get started, and we're going to land the plane with some words of wisdom. It's going to be a great journey. I can't wait to see what tips, tricks, and items you pull out for your business.

Allen Adamson is a noted industry expert in all disciplines of branding. He has worked with a broad spectrum of consumer and corporate businesses in industries ranging from packaged goods and technology to healthcare and financial services to hospitality and entertainment. Given his broad perspective and depth of experience, Allen is able to help clients see and seize opportunities before the competition, activating solutions that enable them to shift ahead of the market, generating long term value and increased brand equity.

He and his team help clients identify what truly matters to the audience they serve, what is relevant to them, and deliver on it brilliantly. Allen's newest book Seeing the How: Achieving Market Advantage By Transforming the Stuff We Do, Not the Stuff We Buy, published in May 2023, focuses on the consumer experience as a competitive advantage, and how his change and perspective has allowed companies to achieve dramatic growth and categorical leadership. Ladies and gentlemen, this is going to be a good one, so buckle up. It's time to get into the good stuff.

We're back for a conversation that helps you impact your business, align vectors, and head in the right B2B direction. Today, we're going to talk about brand differentiation through experience innovation. Allen Adamson is here. Of course, you've already heard the bio in the intro. My goodness is this going to be a great conversation.

Allen, how are you doing today?

Allen Adamson: Terrific. Thanks for inviting me. I'm looking forward to talking.

George: I think it's going to be a great conversation. I love chats, especially ones that help people grow. One of the things that I like to do on this podcast, and I start with this question on purpose because I've seen it get us to some really interesting conversation points. I ask a could of weird questions. One is what keeps you up at night, one is what are some words of wisdom. They're kind of open ended so we could go in any direction, especially this first one. I've learned that it could be a dream or it could be a nightmare, but what is it that keeps you up at night around this idea of brand differentiation, B2B marketers, and innovating the experiences they provide for potential prospects, leads, customers?

Allen: The big challenge that most B2B marketers face that keeps me up is that it's a sea of sameness. You hear a business leader come to me and say, "We are customer-centric, we provide solutions, we're transforming our customer's experience, we're seamless." At the end of the day, they're all using the same words. They're using the same visuals. If you look at their sales pitch, there are people running around holding iPads, laser beams coming in, and it's so full of jargon that you can look at a new business presentation from a company and go, "What the heck do they do?" You're certainly left saying, "Who cares? What's different?" because they're using the same words and they're putting them together in run-on sentences, and they're not speaking English to most of their customers, they're in jargon heaven.

George: First of all, I like me some iPads and laser beams, but jargon heaven is probably actually hell. Let's dig in. I love this idea of not being in the sea of sameness. To get out of that sea, I think it comes back to actually transforming something. In your book, you talked about how today's most successful businesses are those that have significantly transformed our, the users', daily routines. How are they doing this and why is this such an important shift for brands to implement?

Allen: It's happening a lot on the consumer side, but as always, we're all humans in marketing. A lot of B2Bs that only look what the person across the street is doing are going to be left in Never Never Land. Sometimes looking across the pond and saying, "What are people living in the rest of their life?"

I remember I was having a conversation with an executive at a large B2B company, the CEO. He said, "My daughter is ordering everything on her phone, instantly, and flipping around. Our customers have to call a call center, somebody has to get on the phone with them, and explain. Why can't we do this?" Part of it is realizing that your worlds are colliding, that you need to pay attention to those experiences.

I think the most important thing, as a starting point to answer your question, is zoom out from the product. Most companies are so excited to say, "Look at this great thing I have to sell you. You really need this little box. It's terrific. You'll love it. It's the best box on the market." You may have the best box, but for sure that box won't be the best for six months or six weeks. What's happening is the time you have between having a better mouse trap and everyone on the block having the same mousetrap is gone.

Step one is to realize, yes, the product or the service is important, but if that's all you're talking about, you're not connecting with your customer.

George: I love this idea of connecting with the customer. It's interesting, the CEO conversation of being able to just get on and do something, it makes you feel like you're very close to the brand, you're close to the process. We even talk about getting closer to the customer has always been the goal of good marketing. Your words more than my words, what I'm saying there. When you say getting closer to the customer, what do we actually mean?

Allen: You ask any company, "Do you understand your customer," they say, "Oh, yes. We've been in the business for 15 years, we know our customers." What that usually means is two challenges. They are reading reports, they're asking customers, "Are you satisfied," and most people say they're satisfied. They won't tell you anything more than that. If they're unsatisfied and miserable, they'll tell you, but they won't tell you that it's not really that different, it's just okay.

Part of it is realizing that the old-fashioned, "How am I doing," to customers is not going to give you the answer. Two, just looking at a research report once in a while. Three, talking to your "customers a year-and-a-half ago, what they're feeling now is going to be very different. Part of it getting back into it. When I see a lot of B2B executives, like most of us, they're scheduled in meeting after meeting, they go from one Zoom call or from one conference room to the other. By and large, they are not looking at their customers.

I'll tell you a funny story. My father-in-law was in the shopping mall business, a tough business. When I first met him, he had a successful business. They were selling not to customers, they're selling to other retailers to come into the mall to buy space. Even after he was retired, he used to love walking the mall. He would take me walking around, not to buy things and not ask what you want in a mall, but he would just sit there as an observer. He was fascinated by looking at what people were doing.

I think part of what being close to the customer means is getting out from in front of your screen, getting away from answering emails, getting away from just talking about your product, and going back to square one to say, "Can I watch my customers better? Can I ask them questions other than how am I doing?" Doing it on a continuous basis so it's not once a year, "We did our customer satisfaction and 26% of our customers think we're doing a good job, so let's keep on going."

George: I love this conversation. There's a couple of things going through my brain right now. One is allowing yourself or designing your life in a way which you have the time to be a people watcher, meaning the tribe that is around your organization. I think that's so key to so many people because we are on this professional treadmill from XYZ time to whenever you clock out and go home, especially I think the higher you go up in an org chart. Look at owners, they live it, breathe it, eat it, almost 24/7 other than when they're sleeping. This ability to be like I just need to take a break and watch what they're doing and get close to them.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that when I hear you talk, I think of Nate Brown and a podcast episode we did on voice of customer. Of course, Marketing Smarts listeners, if you've been listening for any length of time, you know I keep coming back and talking about Nate Brown and that episode because it is important. What Allen is saying here, being able to actually watch, or hear, or interact and understand how it's changing.

Speaking of changing, you alluded to if you talked to them a year-and-a-half ago. How has getting closer to the customer changed over, I want to say the past couple of weeks, but maybe the past couple of months, but for sure over the past several years? How is getting closer to them changing in today's times?

Allen: It's changing, as you just alluded to, the pace of change is going faster, but most people are creatures of habit. There's an old TV show called Frasier, and Frasier's dad had this old lounger and he just was comfortable. You are like that, you're more comfortable with what you did yesterday than trying something new tomorrow.

Most of the time, most people are on autopilot. The only time they say, "Oh my goodness, I better go talk to some customers," is when sales start to drop. As you know, and as most of your listeners know, by the time sales start dropping, that's a rearview mirror. Some of your best employees have bailed out, your customers have voted with their spending, getting them back is going to be tough, and even fixing the problem.

The time you have to start worrying is when sales are good. If you're going to do something new, you're never going to get it right on the first try, you're going to have to take two or three swings. But if you're already going downhill and the sky is falling, you don't have three swings, you have to hit the first pitch. Part of success in business is executing something really well. If you're average, no one cares. To do something really well takes a little bit of time, no matter how much you know your business.

The other thing is when I speak to companies, they are saying, "I've been in the screwdriver business for 35 years. I know exactly what our customers want." They go in hardwired that they know the answer. One of the interesting things I learned about was a couple of years back when I spoke to the folks at HBO. Again, different business, consumer.

When people hire young people, interns or junior level people, they put them in the bullpen. But at HBO, they said, "Our leadership needed to understand what's going on," so they give the college kids to the president and founder and force them to hang out with these college kids, much like the story of the CEO's daughter, to make sure they're in touch with what's going on in the world as opposed to living in the world that existed a couple years ago.

George: So good. One of the things in that section that I hope the Marketing Smarts listeners pull out is you said the idea of executing something well. I want to tie that back to the rearview mirror, because you can't execute something really well if you're looking in the rearview mirror. You have to be looking forward. You have to have your hands on the steering wheel. You have to be able to navigate ahead into the things that are coming instead of six months ago, a year ago, two years ago, this was the thing.

If we keep drilling down here, let's go back to the title for a second, brand differentiation through experience innovation. A lot of this conversation is about the experience that we can provide if we are people watching, if we do have a voice of customer. I'm a firm believer that experience is everything. However, can every brand create an experience that resonates? And is that what now determines which brands in the spaces live or die in this fast-paced digital world that we live in?

Allen: It doesn't take a lot to change an experience. We're not talking about when you come into a prospect in a sales meeting and you want a marching band behind you playing a song. It's more about thinking about everything you do and saying, "Is this going to stand out?" I'll give you an example.

Oftentimes, in business-to-business a company will write a proposal and say, "Here's our team. We have George. We have Debbie. We have Mark," and they'll include their bios, and each of them has a little black and white picture, "George has been in business 12 years. Before he worked there, he worked at this company." You look at everyone's bio and they're completely generic. We also know that no one reads anything. You wonder why if I want to meet the team, why am I reading a boring resume? Why can't you introduce your team in interesting ways?

A lot of companies have sprung up where instead of a salesperson going up and saying, "Let me tell you about me. I went to this school. I grew up in this neighborhood. I worked at this company, and I did this, and I was promoted to super executive vice president," you can send a client or a prospect a minute-and-a-half video of, "I think you have a problem. I have an idea. Can I come see you? Here's my idea."

Everyone has ADD, time compressed. Lots of us are in the writing world, and writing long, and our consumers are in the 'I have 10 seconds to figure this out. Don't tell me the same thing everyone else is telling me.'

George: We could just drop the mic on that last statement that you just said, but that all was good stuff. Marketing Smarts listeners, I think we might have hit a rewind point. Make sure you have that notepad, that chalk, that whiteboard, that marker, whatever you need, something to write with, and definitely take some notes out of that. Allen, what are the changes in customer experience that innovative businesses are making? What have you seen where people are tweaking what they're doing?

Allen: I'll give you a consumer example, but I think you can apply it to B2B. Part of it is going back to what I was talking about, which is if you're only focused on selling your product, you're not going to be listening to your customers. Most companies are so focused on talking and not listening that you're not zooming out.

We all fly on airplanes occasionally, and most airlines are focused on when you sit in the seat, are the peanuts fresh, did they spill something on you. Every airline does the same thing, but recently Delta did something on their app that really exemplified zooming out and understanding your customer's experience. When you go to an airport these days and you see on your phone that you have to go to Gate 24B, and you arrive at the curb, you have no idea how long it's going to take you to get to Gate 24B because you don't know how long the lines are, you don't know how far the gate walk is. So, Delta put in a Ways feature that says you're at the curb, it's going to take you 25 minutes to get there, so don't stop for a coffee up here, because you don't realize it's a 3-mile walk to the gate. In other words, they started to think about the totality of the customer's experience.

What I recommend for B2B businesses is look at how you touch that customer, look at those touchpoints and say, "What's going on in their life? How can I make my sales process easier and more interesting? Don't tell them what I want to tell them, tell them what they want to ask." Maybe you ask a client before you go see them, "I have five minutes of your time. Tell me the three things that I have to answer in that meeting," as opposed to coming in with your video that looks the same as everyone else.

George: Make your sales process more interesting. I love sitting back and just listening to these conversations that I have with smart individuals like yourself because there are definite nuggets. My biggest hope for the Marketing Smarts listeners is that they pay attention to these nuggets, they pull them out of the interviews, and then they pull the thread on what it means for their organization. I swear to you, I know there's probably hundreds, if not thousands of organizations, listeners listening to this, that if they pulled on that one thread, make your sales process more interesting, it would dramatically impact the business growth moving forward.

Allen: Not in a superficial way, but do something different. Part of it is that you'll do something and it won't work, but iterate and think about how you can tell your story. Every sale is a story. How can you make your story stickier and more interesting? Less is more.

I'll tell you another quick story. Early in my career, I was in the advertising business. I had just started, and I was working on a coffee brand. The creative team said, "Tell us on a piece of paper and an email everything that you want us to communicate about this coffee." We all have this problem. Tell me about why I should do business with you.

I looked at the competition, I spent a lot of time, and I wrote a whole page of five things about our company. We care about our customers, we stand behind our work, etcetera. The creative person looked at it and said, "These five paragraphs are really interesting." Then she ripped off the corner of the page and said, "If you can write down on this little square of paper what you want to communicate, you have a chance of getting it across."

If you're thinking about how to communicate, less is more. You're better off getting one idea that's simple and doing a great job of telling that story than trying to tell a story that has 10 chapters. As I said earlier, people don't remember the facts. They want to hear a story, not just the car has this gas mileage, the coffee cup holder is here, the insurance will cover this. Companies are so hardwired to try to sell facts that they've stopped trying to figure out what all of these facts mean and how it will make the customer's life better.

George: The last lines that you're saying on this interview, making your customer's life better, make your sales process more interesting, make your customers' lives better. Let's keep diving in. I'm super curious and I don't want to run out of time. We have plenty of time, but I want to make sure that we get some more of these nuggets for the listeners.

How does customer experience innovation drive more growth than production differentiation? I think at the beginning of this episode we started by saying everybody is talking about the product. Talk us through how does experience innovation drive more growth.

Allen: It's a hard change because most successful businesses are started by engineers or someone who has invented a product, and to tell them that they shouldn't talk about their product is hard. Talk about how it works, because while you have a difference, it's not something that is going to last. In fact, the differences people are already going to know about. Let me give you a story.

FedEx is a very successful B2B company that also does B2C. For a long time, they were talking about when they first started how they got the packages to everywhere fast. They talked about all of the packages flying to Memphis and the whole thing. But at the end of the day, customers don't really care how you do it, they just want to know is it happening in time. Lots of these companies have gotten better about just telling the customers, "Your package is now in Cleveland. It will be at the store in two seconds."

Again, that's not their product, that's just telling them things that will make them worry less. It gets back to that simple thing of do less. If you're doing too much, you can't be good. Experience differentiation sounds like a big word, but small things make a big difference in experience.

Back to a customer thing. When Amazon started to deliver packages to your house, texting you a picture of the box at your door seemed like who cares about that, but that just says I better go open the door and get it, or it's there. A simple picture. For years, they would log on here and get this.

Just look at how people are living and how you might do simple things. Make it a little easier, a little friendlier, a little faster around your product, because you can't win on the product. I mean you can't win in the short term, but there are some winners.

George: I love that. I think about the picture in the Amazon story. For most people, unless I'm weird, it also creates a little bit of excitement. It's like Christmas on your front porch. You're like, "It's here! I've been waiting." It's just fun how that adds that little bit of excitement to your life because you've received what you want.

I love these stories, and you've told a couple of stories along the way. I have to double down and ask you what success looks like. How do we know that we've reached experience innovation nirvana? Meaning, what is an example, or some examples of companies that are just doing it right?

Allen: That is a challenge, because the premise is I've got it right. That used to be the way you could survive in business. You'd fix something and then you could get into if it ain't broke, don't fix it, and you could sit back, open the beer, and say, "I've done it." But as you said earlier, the pace of change is so crazy. If you just look at that as the end point, I've fixed the product or the service, I've solved the customer's problem, they're happy, every day you have to feel like you are becoming obsolete. You need a bit of this only the paranoid survive. If you don't come into the office every day realizing that yesterday you got lucky and things are changing, and if you just do the same thing you did yesterday, the only thing for sure is you'll be less successful.

I think part of it is not accepting the I've achieved it. You'll know when you've achieved it because, ultimately, sales is a good indicator of things going right. If the sales chart is going up, you're fine. But if you just say that's good, let's keep doing what we're doing, which is most of the mentality out there, you talk to people with successful businesses they say, "Business is great. We're just going to have Bob and Debbie do the same thing as always. We have no worries." Once you're into that we have no worries world, you're already in danger of becoming your father's Oldsmobile. You have to be constantly the nervous founder. Don't let your success get to your head.

Back to the other point that I said. Even small changes, like showing a picture of a package, take a long time to get right. You're better off doing a few small things and getting them right than trying to completely reinvent everything.

George: I have a buddy, I love this saying that he says, "How you do small things is how you do all things." It's just hitting real hard on this episode. Don't be your father's Oldsmobile was like a two-by-four across my forehead when you said it. I have to pull out the thing that you said in that section for me where I was like I have to jot this down, this has to be a tweet or a graphic or something; if you do what you did yesterday, the only thing you'll be is less successful. My goodness, Marketing Smarts listeners, I hope you heard that. I hope it hits in the way that it hit for me. You have to be changing it up, you have to be innovating. Again, that steering wheel, that windshield, driving in the right direction.

Allen: Looking down the road, not looking behind you. The other piece that experience matters is that no one shares ordinary things. If you have an ordinary company experience, no one shares that. If you screw up, you'll have a lot of people sharing that. The most important thing for most businesses is word of mouth. Word of mouth on social media, word of mouth in reviews, word of mouth to friends. To get people to share something, you have to do something more than average. If you're just good, average is over. You have to do a few things that surprise your customer every couple of months, because if they're not surprised, they won't tell anybody, "I had a great experience at Joe's Car Wash, they did this. Wow."

If it's Joe's Car Wash has been the same for five years, they clean the cars, it's average cleaning and nothing special, I'm happy with it, you'll get into a situation that happened to me when I was working for a pizza company. They said, "People love our pizza." Great. They're happy with it, they like the taste, and the cheese. Then the moderator and researcher says, "What happens if that pizza company went out of business?" Everyone said, "Oh, I'd go across the street." Keep in mind that even though they're happy, the fact that you're not that different and they're not really happy to the point where they want to tell people isn't going to prevent them from going across the street.

George: It's so interesting to hear you talk about that. It shot in my brain happy does not equal sticky. You want your business to be sticky. You want them to say, "I would be sad," or, "I don't know what I would do." There has to be that loss or gap.

Let's get tactical here for a little bit. We're about to land the plane. I can't wait to ask you for some words of wisdom because you've been on a journey and I can't wait to see what you're going to share with the Marketing Smarts listeners. But let's get tactical before we get there. What are two or three tips when we're talking about this conversation of actually differentiating your brand through experience innovation, what are the tactical tips that you would want to leave the Marketing Smarts listeners with?

Allen: Look at how you touch your customer, whether it's sales, a PowerPoint deck, what your website looks like, when they get your product, what happens, is it just dropped off or does somebody talk to them. Map those out. Don't try to fix everything, but pick one or two of those touchpoints and get together with your team or yourself and say, "How might I do that differently?" Come up with a couple of ideas and try them. Try them on five customers.

Don't spend forever polishing it and then introducing the new way we're going to do business. Be ready to try it, change it, try it, change it, because as we talked about, you have to be great at whatever you do because average is over. To get there, like anything else, anything you do well you have to focus on and practice. My thought is look at those touchpoints, find one or two, and start practicing how you make it slightly different every day.

George: So good. Slightly different every day. I've lived by a rule for many years now, 1% better each and every day. How at your organization can you think to yourself, "We want to get 1% better." Obviously, you might do more than 1%, but you get it, it's just a saying. How can we be 1% better each and every day?

Allen, this has been an absolutely fantastic interview. I think there are so many nuggets of wisdom left along the trail, but I still need to get more. What are the words of wisdom that you want to share with the Marketing Smarts listeners about experience innovation, brand differentiation, or maybe just life in general?

Allen: The first one is surrounding yourself with people that don't say yes to you. "Oh, great idea, George." Make sure that you bounce ideas off people that are comfortable saying, "No, that's terrible," that have different perspectives. We get into these bubbles where people say, "Great business," especially in successful companies, no one wants to tell the boss that it's going to rain. Make sure you have friends who are honest with you and you bounce ideas off of people that see the world a little differently than you. That's tip one.

Part of seeing what's going on is to be in reality and not in a bubble saying everyone around me thinks I'm great. That's what happens to a lot of companies, they get very much in the bubble of no one telling them their stuff is not that good anymore. One is surround yourself with people that are brutally honest, look for people that are different, don't go to the same group of friends that always say you're great and all went to the same school, all live in the same neighborhood, and all watch the same movies. Try to shake it up.

The other is try to become a 12-year-old again. Remember when you took your kids walking and they said, "What's that?" Try to see the world as if you're landing from Mars, because that's where new stuff comes from. Why do people always use 40-page PowerPoints when they start a presentation? Who wants to do that? Make sure you're asking why. If not, get people around you that ask why.

Those are my top two.

George: Marketing Smarts listeners, did you take lots of notes? I have to ask, what is your one thing, your number one execution opportunity after this podcast episode? Make sure you reach out and let us know in my inbox or on Twitter using the hashtag #MPB2B.

I also have to ask are you a free member of the MarketingProfs community yet? If not, head over to You won't regret the additional B2B marketing education that you'll be adding to your life.

We'd like it if you could leave us a rating or review on your favorite podcast app, but we'd love it if you would share this episode with a coworker or friend. Until we meet in the next episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast where we talk with Ryan Brock about unleashing the power of pillar-based marketing, I hope you do just a couple of things. One, reach out and let us know what conversation you'd like to listen in on next. Two, focus on getting 1% better at your craft each and every day. Finally, remember to be a happy, helpful, humble B2B marketing human. We'll see you in the next episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast.

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