Experience economy! The phygital generation! Bold new world!

There are lots of great and new ideas about how brands are evolving from selling products and services to designing experiences. Inevitably, most of the new ideas are not great and many of the great ideas are not new. As tempting as it is to rewrite the rules of marketing with every new technological or social trend, the fundamentals of a great branded experience haven’t changed just because the language of marketing has evolved. Iconic brands have been delivering great experiences for centuries before the term ‘experiential marketing’ was coined. Here are a few things I’ve learned from working with some of them.

V&A: Design serendipity and surprise into the experience

The V&A is the world’s largest museum of art and design, exhibiting objects that span 5,000 years of human invention and attracting 3.5 million visitors each year. The museum’s vast archive gives them almost infinite possibilities for storytelling. But the museum’s curators don’t force a narrative on their visitors. This is one of the most important differences between advertising and experience: there’s no need to force a linear narrative on your audience. So the V&A doesn’t try to dictate or direct the experience their guests should have. Jane Rosier, then V&A’s Head of Marketing, explained their approach in my book, Wild Thinking:

“Anybody should be able to come to a museum or gallery and enjoy that visit on whatever level they want to. By the very nature of the range of collections we hold and how the galleries are organised, there’s a fair chance that if you come here looking for one thing, you’re going to stumble across something else.”

As a fashion student, Alexander McQueen used to visit the V&A and he would talk about how wonderful it would be to be locked in there overnight. This is because great experiences are things we wander through. The moment we feel railroaded or forced into experiencing something a certain way, this instinct to explore is extinguished.  Surprise and serendipity are core aspects of a great experience: they allow us to feel our own experience is personal and uniquely meaningful; and they please us in ways we couldn’t have imagined or predicted. So don’t obsess over the “story” you’re telling. Design opportunities for people to discover different manifestations of the meaning you want to convey. If you design experiences, you’re not a story-teller; you’re a scene-setter.

Ascot: brand strategy is expected to be clever. But it needs to be practical too.

Every year, 300,000 of the world’s most demanding customers flock to Royal Ascot –  including the Queen and many members of the Royal Family. The pressure to deliver an excellent customer experience is immense. To achieve this, Ascot’s 200 full-time staff are complemented by more than 6,500 temporary staff, all of whom need to be trained to deliver a unique experience that both exceeds visitor expectations and does justice to the brand’s proud history. To achieve this, Juliet Slot – Ascot’s Chief Commercial Officer – has worked with the individuals and teams responsible for every aspect of the guest experience to define the Ascot brand promise and – crucially – to create a set of simple, practical ways for customer-facing staff to deliver on this promise:

“The thing about brands is they’re never really delivered by the marketing team. You need them to be delivered by your operations, facilities and your catering teams… Your number one customer is the person, the student, who is here for six days at most working as a temporary member of staff. They are the people on the coalface. They’re at the forefront of delivering your brand… We developed a lot of shorthand techniques and practical everyday examples of what it meant to deliver the brand and its values. We keep it really simple, and we don’t give them too many things to think about. We gave them really clear shorthands in relation to their job, as to what we want them to focus on.”

Experiential marketing can be immersive and inspiring. But unless the experience is designed to deliver on these simple shorthands, it will do little to enhance people’s understanding of your brand or to deepen their connection to it.

Wimbledon: a case study in the power of restraint

Founded in 1868, the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club (AELTC) hosted its first Lawn Tennis Championship in 1877.  Over the intervening century and a half(ish), The Championships have become a byword for details done properly – right down to the strawberries, which are picked and inspected daily to ensure they are the optimum size of between 25–45 mm, so that people can enjoy their strawberries and cream without needing to cut the strawberries. Every last detail has been designed to convey the desired impression of tennis in an English garden. 

The experience is layered. Whether it’s physical or digital – we distinguish between ‘high level’, ‘my level’ and ‘I-spy level’ interactions. ‘High level’ interactions – banners, posters, headlines – introduce what the experience is all about, while ‘my level’ interactions deliver the insight and inspiration promised at the high level. ‘I-spy’ level communication is designed to add a layer of surprise and provide delight in the detail. Crucially, this requires restraint for the details to shine through. If there is too much noise at the ‘high level’ or ‘my level’ then people simply won’t notice the details delivered at the ‘I-spy’ level.

And when it comes to a great brand experience, it’s the details that make all the difference.

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