What it says on the tin
According to Daniel Kahneman, we are rather schizophrenic when it comes to defining our experiences. There is the Experiencing Self, who lives in the precent and whose experiences in real time are believed to be etched in our memory for eternity. Then there is the Remembering Self who, once the experience is over, takes over interpretation duties and rewrites history according to its own set of rules; the peak-end rule being particularly relevant to brands.
An example he uses is research from colonoscopy patients (ouch). The patients would report their experienced pain throughout the examination (on a 1-10 scale), and was later asked to describe the overall level of pain. What he found was that two instances came to define the entire experience: the peak level pain, i.e. the highest level reached, and the pain at the end of the examination. Regardless of duration of examination and average pain level, it was the combination of pain at these two instances which the Remembering Self used to define the experience. So, a one hour examination with a constant pain-level of 8/10, and which slowly eases down to 4/10 towards the end is preferable to a 30 min examination with an average pain level of 6/10, but with an occasional peak of 9/10 and which ends abruptly at 6/10.
So what are the implications for brands? For most consumer brands it is difficult to control the customer experience as it is broken up into several touch points over a period of time. For retailers and services however, where the experience takes place on a more easily manageable timeline, paying attention to these findings can make a big difference to brand perceptions and customer loyalty. Anything that makes the experience easier, quicker, more fun and pleasurable will potentially stand out. While suggesting great service and providing a pleasurable customer experience hardly breaks new ground, it may be worth thinking about when in the experience they appear (end) and to what extent they stand out from the rest of the experience (peak).
The research also found that we actively attempt to create good memories and that this affects our purchasing decisions. Just think about the extent to which we document our holidays; it’s almost as if we go on holiday to produce a spectacular photo album (partly to show others, partly to remind ourselves of the experience).When asked, people would spend less money on their holidays if they knew their pictures would be burnt after, and would not even go to some type of holidays if they were told their memories of the experience would be wiped clean (e.g. trekking, which is a pain in real time, the joy of achievement being the motivation). So we instinctively know that the memory of the experience is what will matter and take steps to manage these, probably some times by deluding ourselves.
I’m uncertain what the relationship is between positive and negative experiences. To what degree is a negative peak allowed to overrule an otherwise positive experience? I suspect it is a sliding scale. My childhood was good, and it is the really good memories (peaks) that stand out and define it. Although there are negative memories, I seem to remember these more on an intellectual level and less on an emotional one (I guess there is no specific end to a childhood). However, Kahneman mentions how his friend’s experience of listening to a wonderful piece of classical music was ruined when the record scratched towards the end, something which I can easily relate to.
Perhaps this means that the end is more prominent than the peak; perhaps it depends on the type of experience and strength of emotions evoked by it. I do, however, think it is uncommon to have so-called mixed feelings about an experience; it is either positive or negative. Although emotions may be mixed immediately after, I think we eventually settle on one or the other and our minds will then reinforce the story by emphasising instants to support its decision.
There are of course many other aspects to experience; branding is in fact all about managing and creating memories of experiences. Yesterday, in the ABC program Secrets of the Superbrands, the host tested two cans of Heinz bakes beans on random passer-byes, one of which was branded Heinz, the other Sainsbury’s Homebrand. Most people preferred the Heinz branded Heinz product. If brand values and associations have such a direct impact on our rational (or so we thought) Experiencing Selves, imagine what impact they have on the irrational Remembering Selves!