Marketers have long known that stories capture consumers’ attention and they commonly weave storytelling into their marketing messages. But as consumer interactions become ever more digital – perhaps because of this — consumers are seeking out real-world interactions with brands and their stories. In response, a growing number of experience design agencies (mine among them) are creating “experiential brand homes” like the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin — physical destinations (think of them as theme parks for the brand) that engage customers and build loyalty.
Like theme parks, they frequently rank among the top tourist draws in cities around world, including in Amsterdam, Atlanta, Detroit, Dublin, London, Nashville and Wolfsburg. Since its refurbishment in 2008, for example, The Heineken Experience in Amsterdam has become one of the city’s top attractions. In fact, while the total tourism market in Amsterdam grew 19 percent from 2009 to 2014,
Heineken Experience grew 143 percent. In 2014, more than 740,000 visitors toured the historic brewery. This popularity has enabled Heineken to raise admission prices by more than 60 percent since 2009 and increase retail sales per capita by 100 percent from 2009 to 2014.
The Coca-Cola Company has seen similar success with its World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta. It consistently performs at the top of its category on attendance, guest satisfaction, retail sales per square foot and per capita, and yield on admission. A majority of guests have a more favorable opinion of Coca-Cola after they visit the brand home and 94 percent say they would recommend the experience to a friend.
Likewise, the Guinness Storehouse has been a big success for Diageo, and was recently named by World Travel Awards judges as the best tourist attraction in all of Europe, beating out the Eiffel Tower, the Roman Colosseum and Buckingham Palace. Since a major update in 2011, Guinness Storehouse attendance has increased 35 percent, retail sales per capita have gone up 26 percent, food and beverage spend has increased 47 percent, and overall net profit has increased 240 percent. Most importantly, more than 80 percent of visitors express a greater closeness to the Guinness brand after they visit.
There are three reasons brand homes often deliver such strong returns on investment.
- They engage consumers longer. Compared to television commercials (30 seconds) and social media (three minutes), brand homes involve consumers for a relative eternity — two or more hours, on average.
- Consumers opt in. Unlike interruptive marketing, people choose to visit and pay to experience a brand home. These guests are primed to receive the brand’s message.
- They are inherently social. Families and groups of friends often participate in these experiences together, which significantly improves word of mouth potential. Many companies also use their brand homes throughout the year for corporate events and community programs.
We find that brand homes are most effective in combination with other communication and content platforms as part of a holistic marketing strategy. They complement a brand’s investment in mass media, digital and direct marketing by providing a longer and lasting emotional experience.
Several recent studies suggest why consumers, particularly Millennials, want to engage with brands through these kinds of shared experiences. For instance, one study found that more than eight in 10 Millennials (82%) attended or participated in a variety of live experiences in the past year and that nearly three-quarters of them (72%) say they would like to increase their spending on experiences rather than physical things. And a recent report in Fast Company offered a scientific rationale for why “shared experiences connect us more to other people than shared consumption.”
The principles of destination storytelling
While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all recipe for creating a brand home, the most successful ones, in our experience and observing others’, adhere to these seven principles.
- Know your destination. The goal of a brand home is to inspire a change in the visitor. Therefore, it is important to define the key performance indicators at the outset and build measurement touch points into the guest journey. Measurement can take many forms, including brand perception, purchase intent, brand preference and loyalty, or word of mouth.
- Start in the heart. Emotionally engaging brand storytelling taps into the universal emotions and shared experiences that connect visitors to the brand. These emotional drivers inform the underlying narrative thread; the media and technologies that bring the story to life; the interior schematics; and the overall physical space. For example, a short film called “Moments of Happiness,” set to the Imagine Dragons song “On Top of the World,” kicks off the World of Coca-Cola experience. It connects the brand to universal feelings of joy — such as the thrill of a first kiss, reuniting with a loved one, or the triumph of facing your fears.
- One unifying theme. In his book In Search of the Obvious, Jack Trout argued that brands should strive to own one concept in the consumer’s mind; otherwise, “the more things you try to make [a brand] stand for, the more the mind loses focus on what it is.” Rather than push every message possible, brand homes should narrowly focus on one central theme. For instance, the central theme of Story Garden by AMOREPACIFIC, the brand home of the Korean skincare giant, is the notion that “beauty is a gift that can transform the world.”
- Take guests on a journey. Every good story has a narrative arc that carries the audience on a journey from start to finish. To leave a lasting impression, brand homes should take guests on a carefully choreographed emotional journey. The Heineken Experience tells the story of how the beer was “born in Amsterdam and raised by the world.” Guests journey through a carefully scripted experience through which they learn the story of the beverage’s history, where the ingredients come from, the brewing process, and how to drink a Heineken properly for maximum enjoyment. Everything leads to a communal moment at the end of the tour when guests are invited to enjoy a Heineken.
- Engage all five senses. Brand homes are one of the only forms of marketing that can fully engage all five senses. Choreographed soundscapes, product sampling, strategically placed aromas, and hands-on experiences can complement visual media and help audiences completely immerse themselves in the brand. Right from the start of the Guinness Storehouse tour, the aromas of fresh hops, Irish barley and malt ignite guests’ senses and draw them into the brand story.
- Quality and delivery matter. A quote attributed to Carl W. Buehner captures the power of experience: “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” Consumers live in an HD world. Brand homes must sweat every detail of the story narrative and physical space to create a sense of magic. In the Manufacturing Innovation Theater at the Ford Rouge Factory Tour in Dearborn, Michigan, synchronized robots straight from the factory floor are combined with projection mapping, lasers and other visual effects to give guests the experience of watching a new F-150 truck being born right before their eyes.
- Be alive. Brand homes should be treated as a piece of living theater, not a static building. They can permanently or temporarily showcase marketing campaigns and product innovations. As physical assets, they can be used to host events and community programming throughout the year. Many companies have experimented with variations on corporate museums and have achieved mediocre results. The common trap is to treat these experiences as a walk-through corporate magazine with little attempt to connect to visitors emotionally or help them appreciate why they should care.
In my view, good brand homes celebrate the corporation. Better brand homes celebrate the product. The best brand homes do both of these, while focusing equal attention on the audience itself.