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Running Your Business:
The Play & The Place: Designing A Branded Experience
By Rick Hendrie

"You are what your guest thinks you are."

In the recent Time Magazine issue on "What's next?" there was an extensive article on the future of neuro-imaging. It referred to results of extensive research comparing consumer's reactions to Coke and Pepsi using this new technique. Neuro-imaging allows scientists to see exactly what part of the brain is engaged by stimulus. Participants were offered a blind taste test of both beverages. Pepsi came out about equal regardless if the consumer labeled themselves Coke or Pepsi drinkers. Once the consumers were exposed to Coke and Pepsi branding communication, however, Coke won going away. The frontal lobes of the participant's brains lit up like a sunburst, much more so for Coke's brand stimuli than Pepsi's. Coke managed to penetrate beyond the ever toughening wall between outside communication and the tender reaches of our 'feelings'. Once there, Coke trounced all comers. They have created an emotional connection, a story, a play that transcends logic and which engages consumers without regard to actual preference. If you had several billion dollars and brilliant marketers at your beck and call, you, too, might enjoy the same result. But most of us don't. We must rely on the power of the actual buying experience and the environment in which it takes place to do the heavy lifting.

I wandered through the new Jordan's Furniture Store in Reading Massachusetts a couple of weeks ago and was struck by the difference between a retail experience that is crafted versus one that is not. Competitors include Crate & Barrel & Restoration Hardware. In the case of the latter two, their showroom (granted in Cambridge and in a much smaller space) is a standard issue furniture jamboree with small designed vignettes crushed against single pieces. The context is "We have furniture, watch your step". Jordan's is a two floor extravaganza that includes restaurants (including the king of Mix & Match, Fuddruckers), an IMAX theater and sundry other complementary retailers. The chain first made its name selling beds, so it's not surprising to see most of the first floor devoted to bedrooms. They've set it up much like a museum curates an exhibit, leading guests from room display to display. Every room is fully decorated and furnished, replete with appropriate music & lighting. I was WOWed.

The comparison may seem unfair except I believe it reflects the respective retail philosophies accurately. The old paradigm is to create a crowded show room that offers the semblance of choice. It's transactional: if you don't like this bed, what about that one? The Jordan's paradigm is entirely experiential. They've invested in creating an elaborate theme park of a shopping experience. They spent a huge amount of money on 'sets', but the payoff is clear. People love going there. When they arrive, they like to stay and wander. Jordan's outsells its rivals. They aren't cheap, but they aren't the most expensive either. They surely are the most fun.

Jordan's has produced a Play whose story starts simply, "Once upon a time in a far off retail land, were bedrooms, dozens of bedrooms, in every design with every amenity..." The intent is to put the consumer into the bedroom of their dreams in order to sell a bed that they will love, at a premium. It's not about beds or even sleep. It's about living in the lap of personalized luxury, exemplary of the life of Architectural Digest or Extreme Makeover. In this world, price is about eighth on the list of issues. In fact, Jordan's doesn't do sales, featuring, instead, everyday 'underpricing'. This should be any retailer's fondest wish.

For anyone in the hospitality or restaurant business, the lesson is substantial. Get thee to a computer and create the step by step narrative of the ideal guest experience during their visit. Like Jordan's, give it three dimensions. Recognize the real reasons your customers are buying your brand. The Play has an underlying theme derived from your guiding principles and company values. It captures the facts of what you sell, but speaks to what the guests feel and need. It's what the best, most effective brands do.

Next, realize that a play requires a stage set. This involves both a physical plant and the imaginary experience that is inherent in any communication. Engage the imagination through stimulation of the 5 senses. Aesthetics matter because they help to make people feel good about themselves and the product or service. Take a page out of the book of a realtor. Baked apple aroma has sold many a home.

In a retail setting, this component is critical, but service businesses, wholesalers or others who operate without a physical store still provide a 'place'. A consumer never relates to a business as a disembodied entity. There will always be a place, a setting in the customer's mind, however abstract that might seem. A brand must understand the imagined 'place' is as real as the physical store and apply the same rigor to its upkeep.

  • Understand that the play is linear; any branded transaction will include steps that take the guest from start to finish.
  • Design each 'Zone' or benchmark to operate at its optimum in both it's functional and branded role to support the Play and Promise.
  • Assess the physical elements to be sure that the pieces fit. Waste nothing. Every detail counts.

The world we know is influenced by long standing trends that, like a river current, shape all that surrounds them. One such trend can be defined as "I WILL squeeze the Charmin." People want to feel when they buy and are less inhibited than ever in demanding it. They also will pay more to indulge in this tendency.

Everything else being equal, guests will choose the more engaging retail play, presented in an aesthetically pleasing manner 99 times out of a 100. It's not about effects, but about affect. Sell to my fantasies and sales will rise.

Richard K. Hendrie is the President & Chief Experience Officer of Remarkable Branding, Inc, a Cambridge MA based consultancy which helps clients create memorable brand experiences. For a complimentary newsletter go to

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