Are you experienced?

Promoting your brand while keeping consumers entertained is a tough job. But how else do you appeal to jaded consumers?

What does a brand smell, sound and feel like? It’s a question that is taxing owners of all sorts of brands, from washing powder to cars, as they search for new ways to reach jaded consumers.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate products and services,” says Richard Watson, managing partner of client advisory consultancy GDR. “More and more clients say they need help to develop a ‘brand experience’ which will touch consumers at all levels.”

Client interest in the “brand experience” is driven by a number of factors: it is harder and harder for brands to stand out as consumers are bombarded with product messages; consumers are increasingly affluent; and technology is changing the way they shop.

Paul Edwards, chief executive of consumer consultancy, The Henley Centre says, “As we become more affluent and sophisticated, we are going to see the separation of buying and shopping. Increasingly, we’ll order essentials which aren’t much fun – loo paper, dog food, toothpaste – on-line or through digital TV, and have them delivered. We’ll expect the basics to be cheap, fast and delivered to the door.”

Our shopping time will then be purely for fun and retailers will have to provide some kind of added value “experience” if they are to tempt us on to the high street.

Marian Salzman, a New York-based futurologist at Brand Futures Group says, “People will get more leisure time, but will also become isolated because they will work or shop virtually. They will be looking for new experiences and something to get them out of the house. Brands – if they do it right – can tap into that.”

In the future, people may even be willing to pay to visit a shopping outlet if the experience they are paying for is genuinely rewarding and memorable, she predicts. “If you can turn a shopping mall or a brand into a visitor attraction and a real ‘wow’ experience, people will actually pay to go.” ©

Ralph Ardill of Imagination says that as we shop on-line and more people work from home, there will be fewer and fewer reasons to leave home, so brands will have to create new social spaces to attract consumers.

It’s something that Nike has already recognised. It has reinvented its flagship New York and London Nike Town stores as theme-park-cum-visitor-centres where consumers can undergo the whole holistic Nike brand rather than just buying a pair of trainers.

But it’s not just major leisure brands which are attempting to build an experience around their products. “The breadth and range of clients who are looking for advice on the experience economy is incredible and it’s difficult to imagine how some of them can create a real experience out of pretty bog standard products,” says Watson at GDR.

Among those companies which are developing new “holistic” experiences around their brands are Unilever and Nestlé. Both are keen to make the most of the UK’s booming coffee shop culture – last year, consumers spent £35m on cappuccinos, espressos and lattés – and to emulate the success of chains such as Starbucks and Costa Coffee.

Nestlé is launching a chain of Nescafé Cafés, and Unilever subsidiary Brooke Bond aims to have a Ch’a tea bar in every UK town. Not only does it want to sell more tea, but it also wants to update the drink’s image and attract younger drinkers and hardened coffee drinkers. A spokesman for the company says: “We launched Ch’a to start a revolution with tea to make people fall in love with it again.”

But it’s not only everyday commodity items which want to become part of the experience economy, car manufacturers are also keen to turn the business of buying a new car into a leisure activity.

Car design is notoriously secretive, but Ford is creating a central London design centre with an open-door policy where consumers can watch the design team work on futuristic models while enjoying a coffee, before moving on to look at Ford exhibitions (DW 10 March).

Meanwhile, Volkswagen will open a brand experience called Autostadt in Germany in June, which will have areas dedicated to all its marques – Skoda, Seat, Bentley, Audi and VW (DW 21 April). Potential customers can experience each of the brands in an interactive environment, and stay overnight in the on-site Ritz Carlton hotel before deciding which car to buy.

Caroline Buchanan of Furneaux Stewart, which is developing the concept for VW, says, “They are very different brands for very different markets, but consumers can experience each of them under one roof. VW hopes to attract 1.5m visitors a year.”

In Japan, Toyota has opened Mega Web, an entertainment facility in Tokyo. It is based next to Sony and Panasonic’s own-branded theme parks and the hub, which is known as Palette Town, expects to attract 20m visitors a year.

Visitors to Mega Web can test drive Toyota models, design their own cars using computer software, visit the Toyota museum and watch car restorers at work on classic models. About the only thing visitors can’t do on site is actually buy a car, but dealership information is readily available and the company says the intention is to get the brand “at the top of consumers’ minds when they are thinking about buying a car”.

All this frantic activity is creating new work for designers, says Watson. “It’s something that advertising agencies aren’t particularly good at. There are lots of opportunities out there not just for the Imaginations of this world, which have a lot of experience in this type of area, but also other, perhaps more traditional consultancies.”

Among them is Enterprise IG, which says it is increasingly asked by clients to create brand experiences. “Traditionally, we developed a corporate identity and transferred that into signage, on to vehicles and so on, but now clients want to go much further than that,” says creative director Shane Greeves.

Enterprise IG has worked extensively with Disney to produce European tours for new movie launches. “We started by developing a European train tour for the Hunchback of Notre Dame, which was intended to be an experience in itself and get people excited about seeing the film,” he explains. Enterprise IG created the interior of the train and optical illusions which provided a taster of what the film was all about. It subsequently worked on promoting Disney’s Hercules and Mulan, which included developing a stage set for a live show featuring Chinese acrobats.

“Our work for Disney has helped to change perceptions of what we do and of our creativity, and we have now worked on brand experiences for other clients such as holiday company JMC and car manufacturer Seat,” says Greeves.

He says it has been a steep learning curve. “We got involved with all sorts of areas such as merchandising, prop work and lighting. We are also investigating areas such as sounds – now brands are moving on to the Web we have to work out how they should sound and how they should look when their identities are animated.”

Ardill at Imagination agrees with this comprehensive approach. “Companies are going to look at all aspects of the brand – what does it smell and feel like and how do staff behave.”

Imagination is currently working on a brand experience for Guinness in Dublin which will open later this year. It is intended to become the “worldwide home” of the Guinness brand. “Rather than a corporate cathedral it will be about cultural citizenship,” Ardill explains. “People will come and enjoy the facility for different reasons and it will be multifaceted, it will not just be a tourist attraction.”

While many companies such as Guinness are genuinely trying to create new environments and experiences for their brands, Watson says the whole idea of the brand experience is becoming a bit of a gimmick. “Everybody thinks they have to have some sort of ‘experience’ attached to their brands, but it won’t work for all products and services – I’m not sure how much of a cat food experience you can have.”

Ardill agrees “It’s a bit of a marketing buzzword and true brand experience means more than putting in a cappuccino machine, a few TV monitors and some staff who will dance on the tables. It has to get to the heart of the brand rather than just be bolted on.”

He says that even companies which understand the brand experience could go further. “I think the concept of ‘Nikeness’, for example, could be pushed more. Rather than just create accessories for sport it could invent a new sport which expresses what the brand is all about… it could create the new snowboarding.”

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