The body enables experiences

Close your eyes and imagine yourself in the middle of an amazing marathon event, music festival or your favorite group fitness class. What are you feeling at the moment? Maybe you are excited? Tired, but soaking energy from the people surrounding you? Perhaps you admire the person next to you who is dancing like crazy to the beat?

The truth is that we are not living in a bubble, but rather creating our experiences in a continuous interaction with our surroundings – and other bodies. Interactive aspects of customer experience refer to diverse forms of interaction that affect customer experiences: direct and indirect interaction for example between the customer and firm, brand or other customers, as well as between the customer and other actors, technology and environment. These forms of interaction have usually been framed in cognitive terms and the active bodies that interact have been missing from the picture. We argue that it is the body that creates the connection between humans and the world and therefore claim that embodiment is important to understand the essence of customer experience.

We wanted to lift the living and breathing body to the podium and shake the existing understandings of customer experiences which have largely framed this construct in cognitive terms. At the core of our article recently published in the Journal of Marketing Management is our desire to achieve a better understanding of the interactive and particularly embodied aspects of customer experience.

Interaction between and within the bodies

We interviewed group fitness customers in Finland and mirrored our own experiences (as we both have an active background in group fitness) to the phenomenon. The study explored how the experience in this service context is actually created. We saw here a possibility to utilise a new kind of analysis tool to dig down to the roots of embodiment in customer experience and therefore we utilised script theory. Script theory, which has its roots in psychology, psychiatry and sociology has been used previously only in a few marketing studies from a psychological perspective.

Firstly, results highlight that customer experience is a result of cognition only to a certain extent, and the body and interaction between the bodies are actually key elements. The body has a crucial role in building social relations, offering important cues and creating harmony. Bodies affect and are affected, they are empowering each other, being examples and an object of admiration.

‘It is the best thing about the group when I see others jumping and doing things, and I think that I can’t be the only one who dies here, and I get myself to continue’.

Secondly, our study highlights how customers are creating and shaping their experiences continuously via reflexive embodiment, capturing the sensations felt in the body-subject. Customers are honouring their bodies, bodies are enabling customers to learn and improve, the body is a performing machine as well as providing balance to the customer’s life.

‘When I realise that today I can’t jump as high as I usually can, and I know how much better I could do, it irritates me so much that my body just can’t do what I would so badly want’.

Indeed, many times bodies help make other bodies stronger, better and more capable. Still, sometimes the moving body may arouse negative feelings and ruin individual’s or others’ experience – and there is nothing a service provider could do about this. To summarize, our body shapes everything we think and do.

High-touch is highly relevant – today and tomorrow

The findings not only broaden the theoretical understanding of customer experience and emphasise the multi-layered nature of interaction but also benefit service contexts in which the customer’s body and embodied emotions are part of the production of the service — i.e. in high-touch context, i.e sports-related services, wellness businesses, restaurants and events, such as music festivals, concerts and sporting events.

We encourage managers to shake their traditional ways to manage customer experiences and take a holistic approach as a starting point for all strategic and operational planning and actions: the body is an irreducible part of human experience—sweat, fatigue and other embodied elements cannot be excluded.

As managers succeed in realizing the undeniable role of embodied interaction for experiences, they are able to do two magical things: to create superior experiences together with the customer and to turn this capability as a precious ingredient for building long-term competitive advantage.

Read the original research article: Kuuru, T.-K. & Närvänen, E. (2019). Embodied interaction in customer experience: a phenomenological study of group fitness, Journal of Marketing Management. https://doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2019.1649295

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Tiina-Kaisa Kuuru

Tiina-Kaisa Kuuru is a doctoral candidate in Tampere University, Finland. Her research focuses on customer experiences in service context. In particular, she is interested in the role the body plays in the creation of customer experiences.

Elina Närvänen

Elina Närvänen is university lecturer of marketing at Tampere University, Finland. Her research focuses on consumption communities and experiences, sustainable consumption and interpretive research methods.

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.