• Charli Parker, Graduate Trainee |
6 min read

Building successful brands requires more than just a great product or service, it also requires consumers to remember your brand in a positive light. In fact, what a customer remembers about their experience is arguably more important than the experience itself. By understanding the difference between experience and memory, and how we can design the former to shape the latter, we can design memorable experiences that seek to improve customer perceptions and brand advocacy. But how can brands build and maintain a positive brand perception? The answer lies in the science of memory and perception. This article explores the role of memory in shaping brand perception, specifically looking at how brands can use the peak-end rule to build lasting impressions.

When we experience something, we only retain the memory of that experience. Memory plays a critical role in shaping our perceptions of the past, which in turn influence the actions we choose to take in future. However, memory is far from infallible. The complex process of encoding, storing and retrieving memories is open to distortion and biases as our brains take shortcuts to store snippets of our experiences as lasting memories. This means our memories can end up being quite different from what we have actually experienced.

So how does this relate to customer experience? Well, a single customer experience has many different touchpoints and we’re not able to remember all of these in great detail. When designing experiences, we need to remember that our customers’ memories of these experiences is what truly matter. Through behavioural science and understanding how memories are formed we can shape what our customers remember to build favourable brand perceptions with the intention of boosting customer loyalty and advocacy.

How can the peak-end rule enhance experience design?

When creating memories, some moments carry more weight than others. The peak-end rule explains which moments are most likely to be remembered: individuals judge an experience based on the emotions felt at the peak and at the end. When your mind commits an experience to memory, it leans heavily on the emotional high or low, and on the emotion felt during the final moments. The moments in between these pale in comparison. 

Design with intention 

So, to make sure a customer remembers their experience as truly pleasant, we need to design intentional positive peaks and highlight moments of ease, convenience, personalisation or delight. Identify the positive emotions you want your customers to feel (and which will drive value), and then draw attention to these. For example, imagine you’ve checked into a luxury hotel for your birthday weekend, top notch customer service and seamless check in is to be expected. But a complimentary bouquet of flowers in your room with a personalised welcome note forms a peak memory.

The peak-end rule means we also need to design the final touchpoint of our experience to finish on a high with customers leaving feeling delighted. A great example of this is Cathay Pacific whose flight attendants take the time to memorise the names of first-class passengers so they can wish them save travels as they depart the plane. Some brands offer surprise discounts or free gifts at the point of sale to ensure customers leave on a high. Another great example of creating a positive final peak is Disneyland’s nightly parade. The parade is a vibrant display of music, colour and Disney characters creating a high-energy and emotionally charged atmosphere. This creates a lasting impressing on park visitors, leading to a more positive overall impression of their experience– at this point of the evening they’ve forgotten about the long ques for the rides and about their child’s midday tantrum – their lasting impression is the smile on their child’s face as they watch Tinkerbell fly across the sky. The rule is applicable across industries – so consider how you can go the extra mile with your post-sale experience to reinforce positive memories. 

Consider the sequence and frequency of peaks

The sequence and frequency of the emotional peaks is also important when it comes to designing experiences. Recent peaks are more salient and unpleasant endings have a strong negative impact. While there will inevitably be touchpoints in any journey that are necessary but less pleasurable, if we can cluster these together at the beginning of an experience, they should have less of an impact on our customers’ memory of their interaction. Following any necessary pain points with multiple, pleasant touchpoints can then improve our customers’ perception of service. For example, on a trip to Disney World you are encouraged to pay for all of your meals and theme park tickets before arriving on your holiday. When your holiday starts, you don’t have to pay for any meals or rides and time can be spent forming positive memories. In a similar vein, successful online merchants like Amazon use one-click ordering to reduce the pain of entering payment details every time you want to buy something. Once card details and delivery information are submitted with the first purchase, all future purchases end very smoothly with a single click. 

Know the value of turning a negative peak into a positive one

If part of a customer experience doesn’t go to plan, we risk the peak emotion they feel being a negative one. According to the peak-end rule, this will have an exaggerated impact on the customer’s memory of the experience and could leave them with a negative perception, even if the remainder of the interaction went smoothly. But, with intentional experience design we can reduce the chance of an issue souring the whole customer experience. Thoughtful handling of an unsatisfied customer can actually turn things on their head and leave them feeling more positive about an experience than if everything went according to plan.

A good example to demonstrate this is in the hospitality industry. A busy restaurant is working with reduced staff and service is slower than you expect. After waiting longer than you would have liked for your food, when it finally arrives you are disappointed to realise that it is not what you ordered. You are frustrated and tempted to tell the waitress to return the food so you can leave and go elsewhere. But she is very sympathetic, apologizes and quickly offers to bring out your original order as quickly as possible. When she comes back with your food, she tells you it’s on the house as well as a free dessert. Your frustration quickly turns into delight – the waitress has listened, reacted quickly, shown empathy and not just proactively fixed the problem but gone beyond to surpass your expectations. The experience has ended on a high which has outweighed the frustration you felt earlier, and you remember the experience as positive on the whole.

In sum, when it comes to applying the peak-end rule to design your own unforgettable experiences, you want to look at three key things: 1) the current experience and identify what the peak moments are – what are the emotional highs and lows felt by your customers throughout the journey, and why? 2) Then work on enhancing the positive emotions you want your customers to remember, with a particular focus on the final moments of the interaction. Work to alleviate any negative peaks and cluster these at the start of the interaction where possible. 3) Finally, make sure you have strategies in place to flip a bad experience into a good one.

To conclude, being intentional about how you leverage the human memory through the peak-end rule can be a powerful tool for improving the customer experience. By understanding how memories are formed, brands can design experiences that are more memorable and create positive associations with their brand which should lead to customer loyalty and advocacy over time.