It's a funny thing about consumers. They are actually people, cleverly disguised as demographics, or target groups, or organized by complex algorithms into clever names like "savvy shopaholics" or "sales savants".

The reason this nagging point is important is that people, when they are wearing their consumer hat, don't silo brand experience. This is a nuance that is critical for brands to understand.

As we say often, people don't buy shoes the way they buy shampoo, or anything else, for that matter, and understanding how a category is viewed by people is the only hope of being able to create the kind of brand experience that delights.

Having said that, an experience with one brand in one category doesn't stay put. It "leaks" into how that person sees the experience of consumption of goods and services overall – the retail apparel brand Zappos being a case in point.

Looking at findings from our 2011 Customer Loyalty Engagement Index, the top-ten categories where "customer service" is a relatively high driver of high expectations, from highest to lowest, is as follows:

  1. Coffee (out of home)
  2. Insurance
  3. MFP Office Copier
  4. Car Insurance
  5. Luxury Hotels
  6. Parcel Delivery
  7. Printers
  8. Retail Apparel
  9. Car Rentals
  10. Netbooks

Where Zappos competes is not at the top of the list for the importance of customer service, in and of itself. Other things are more important, such as the goods themselves. However, the contribution that service makes to the total customer experience is important enough to have put Retail Apparel on the short list of categories where it really matters. And, when we look at the top-ten brands across categories when it comes to the delivery of customer service, we see that Zappos reigns supreme:

It is not hyperbole to say that Zappos revolutionized the online ordering experience. While other brands in other categories may have addressed ordering and returns through a marketing and not just a process lens, Zappos turned it into a unique selling position, actually encouraging shoppers to try things, making it painless in both process and payment to return them.

Free shipping, free returns, easy-peasy – it all came to equal a cultural position of the brand. And though we are not privy to the statistics on the Zappos customers who order two pair of shoes with the intention of returning one that never seems to make it out of the house (they are both so cute!), we suspect this strategy has paid off from a sheer sales perspective.

But, what is critically important is the message it has sent to customers: your experience matters more than ours.

And so we return to the original point: consumers have been zapped, and it's been a pleasant feeling, one they are going to measure every brand against. The data, and our experience, show that Zappos-ification has begun.

And that's one shoe that better fit your brand, no matter how different it may look in your category mirror.