Your Experience Is The Brand.
By Rick Hendrie
Thursday, 14th July 2005
Good hospitality, food and service are merely entry points into being competitive.

If there was any doubt that we are in the Era of the Experience Economy, this headline from Stuart Elliott's Advertising column in the New York Times on August 5th, 2004 blew it out of the water, "Meow Mix is opening a temporary café for felines. No dogs allowed. Cat people will understand."

The Meow Mix Company, the maker of dry cat food, wanted to enter the lucrative wet category of the cat food segment. Its method? Create a restaurant (on Fifth Avenue in New York City, no less) featuring its new line for cats and their owners. It's part of a growing trend in packaged goods marketing, called "Pop-up Retail". Companies bring their brands to life in stores they design and manage, or in other high visibility venues. This approach avoids traditional venues like grocery chains and retail super stores as a means to launch or promote a product or service.

Elliott goes on to cite Hershey and Planters as being other examples in using this technique. In each, the goal is the same: to create five-sense stimulated, three dimensional experiences that envelop the consumer and evoke indelible feelings and memories. It's the retail experience and the memories it creates that help our guests decide where to spend their disposable income. 

Passive mediums like advertising, "Works in the margins," according to Brian Collins of Ogilvy and Mather, "With stores, you're creating experiences that people…can actively seek out in ways that give the brands depth, sense, sight, smell, dimension."* NY Times 8/5/2004

How does this work in the hospitality world? 

The Kimpton Group of Hotel properties is an example. Here is an organization that gets the deeper meaning of hospitality and community. They provide the obvious components of brilliant service, but brand their experience with a unique understanding of the relationship they have with the guest. When you go to a Kimpton hotel, you are joining 'that tribe'. It's a space that offers all the perfect details of an orchestrated theatrical experience, whose ultimate purpose is to envelop you. You can be absolutely assured that like-minded people will be there to share the Kimpton branded experience. Here's a sample from their website.

At Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, we know our guests enjoy the finest in food, wine and accommodations. They live their lives to the fullest and want to spend their time surrounded by beautiful design in an environment that is soothing and memorable Guests become citizens of the Kimpton state of mind, whose characteristics include sensational offerings around health, charity, enlightened social responsibility and well being. The bed and meal are merely magnificent mementos to the grander experience.

Even when the news is bad, companies that have created an experience around their brand, find it invoked. Krispy Kreme has been in the news and it's not been pretty. Still, in an article in The Wall Street Journal, September 3rd  dedicated to listing all of Krispy Kreme's woes, it found space to offer a quote from Roy Blount Jr. "When Krispy Kremes are hot, they are to other donuts what angels are to people." Not bad for a company in the midst of an SEC investigation and investor revolt.

Starbuck's Howard Schultz is not kidding when he talks about, "Our primary goal is not to increase transactions; it's to increase the experience in our stores." Boston Globe, April 18, 2004.

Guest Experience Marketing strategies offer a road map to help retailers devise the ways to give brands that depth, et al. But even they cannot overcome a brand without a unique story and deeper purpose for existing. Starbucks is not in the coffee business. It's in the refuge business, the escape business, the 'safe haven' business. That's the experience to which Schultz refers and is its reason for being. It also allows them to charge ungodly amounts for beverages without spending much in traditional marketing. The experience is the brand.

Harley Davidson has come to dominate its industry by understanding it is in the business of creating a family, a tribe of like-minded riders, men and women seeking brother and sisterhood with each other as they join their local HOG (Harley Owner's Group).  The cycles had better be good, but that's not the reason to purchase. People want to belong and connect. The amazing fact is this 'family' transcends the socio-economic, ethnic and cultural barriers that stop most people in their tracks.  Harley gives the customer the means to be part of this family, where the vehicle is simply that, the vehicle to enjoy the deeper branded experience tied to essential human needs.

We must always remember the fundamental purpose behind the commerce: we're here to serve, to provide comfort and sustenance. Breaking bread and providing shelter are two of the most fundamental examples of human generosity that have been offered since man gained self awareness. 

Experiences are created through a carefully planned and executed theatrical event. The play is the thing. There is no other way to generate lasting feelings in the guest. Effective theatrics rooted in a unique story with a deeper purpose produce a sense of connection with the guest, a relationship informed and enhanced by the various stimulus used to enliven the experience. We have all seen the results when companies mistake effects for affect. 

So, as you consider your strategic direction, ask yourself a simple question, "Is my place a show? And, is it an experience I'd pay to see again?" Good food, service or hospitality are merely entry points into being competitive in the new Experience Era. 

Richard K. Hendrie
Chief Experience Officer

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