What makes a brand experience great?

Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of a project I loved. And one that has been loved by many in return. The Hershey Store, launched in 2002, has become a memorable destination for millions of visitors to Times Square.

Businessweek refers to it as one of seven retail “Wonders of the World”. Although not a perfect piece of design by any measure, it quickly became a touch-point for a discussion about the evolution of marketing from traditional, one-way communications to building great brand experiences that people can immerse themselves in and share. The remarkable success of the Hershey Store was just more proof that what people do is more important that whatever they are simply told. It was marketing that people seek out – and pay for – instead of avoiding or turning off.

A good brand experience is when a brand does what we expect of it. A great brand experience is something we tell someone else about. In short, a great brand experience is a story, in which the brand user – not the brand – is the hero. A great brand experience is direct and transformative. It’s not a stunt or a fantasy. It’s not a campaign. It’s not the idea of something. It is something, something worth writing home about – or at least texting a friend. Brand awareness and engaged consumers are happy by-products, but not the point. The test for a great brand experience is result. Something new created. Something changed. A bell that can’t be un-rung.

I’ve made a career out of creating brand experiences, a few of them great. In an effort to make more of them great, here are eight principles that my team and I have found helpful.

1. A great brand experience begins where the script ends, because it’s not the brand’s story. Experience is user’s story. The brand is only the stage manager. The most potent experiences are open-ended. They are worlds that people can explore at will, and that permit a multitude of outcomes. The outcomes belong to the user, not the brand. We call them memories.

2. Meet on new ground. Great brand experiences are exceptional. They occur when the brand and its user are both participants in something new, acting in ways that are outside their usual roles in the brand relationship. It’s their day off from being seller and consumer. It’s a shared adventure.

3. Make the user count.Don’t just count users. People want to be recognized. They want to be the heroes of their own lives and to connect with others and have an effect on their world. A great brand experience is one that is not only personal, but that makes people individually indispensable to the result. Give them more than a voice, give them a Buy Xanax stake in the outcome and a meaningful role to play.

Scale is deceptive in New York - even more so in Times Square. From Broadway, the Kisses look about a foot high. To get the impact we wanted from the street, we made scores of them. Each one is over eighteen feet tall.

4. Aim to build bonds, not just brands. Traditional marketers think of the brand as the destination in every story. An experience that makes your brand the agent of discovery or connection or change in people’s lives can create ties that last a lifetime. What aspirations can you and your users share? What can you do together to realize those aspirations? Ogilvy’s Steve Hayden ( who I ran into at JFK last night ) puts it this way: Big ideas come from big ideals. Ideas only give you share of mind. Ideals give you share of culture. A great brand experience can put ideals into action. In the experiences we designed for CNN, the New York Public Library or Dove, people felt they were doing something important just by coming in the door.

5. Place and time matter. Now more than ever. Fabulous digital experiences can happen anywhere and anywhen. But the moments that truly rock our world are more precise. People measure the potency of events by memory: by where we were when. Experiences that are anchored to a place and time carry a greater emotional charge precisely because so much of our entertainment and engagement is now unstuck in time and mediated by technology through screens.

6. There is no campaign. There is only now. Most engagement strategies are an elaborate series of hand-offs that guide people along to a sale. A great brand experience doesn’t happen downstream somewhere. It is created at the point of contact, and designed to make this contact, with this person, matter. A great brand experience is not a promise. It is its own proof – on the spot –  and its own reward.

7. Determine and use the touch points that matter most. The most powerful media channels in existence are sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. Every sense you can engage doubles the number of consumer brain cells that register your brand experience. This is why a great lover will send you roses instead of emoticons.

8. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Every marketer knows the importance of that last word, “repeat.” The most valuable brand experiences are those, which the consumer can repeat with equal delight, or that inspire continued exploration, connection and sharing with the brand. Otherwise, what you have is simply a transient stunt. The trick we strive for is to create an immersive experience that has the unexpectedness of such a stunt, but with a surprise that lives – and grows – forever.

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