Theron Skees is the Chief Creative Officer of Designer’s Creative Studio. He also currently oversees Disney Cruise Lines as the Vice President, Creative Portfolio Executive with Walt Disney Imagineering.
“Story” as Brand Experience
Telling a story is at the heart of every one of our projects. We understand this as designers in the Themed Entertainment Industry. Story is our communication method and experience is the product we create. Our demographic is… well, everyone. Our design criterion includes the creation of experiences that appeal to the broadest possible audience. Those of us who have worked with the “legacy brands” in this industry like the Walt Disney Company know that we balance the need for nostalgia and trend all within the same property. We also know that if our experiences don’t connect with our guests emotionally, they are less likely to return year after year. Retailers, tech companies, and automobile manufacturers have taken notice. They have followed our lead as an industry starting as far back as 1955 when Walt Disney created Disneyland. Many now actively embrace the alignment of “story” with their brand as standard operating procedure. Delivering this story to their audience comes through the creation of emotionally engaging physical experiences aligned with their products. I call this the dimensionalization of the brand experience.
To understand how to dimensionalize a brand, let’s first examine what a brand is. A brand is commonly defined as: “A product, service, person, company, or a concept which has attributes like a name or symbol that are designed to be differentiated from others in the market.” A brand is what makes the product or experience identifiable and differentiable. This probably seems obvious to those of us working in the design industry. And perhaps today this definition is obvious to anyone with a smartphone or television. Branding is everywhere!
The Old Paradigm
We understand that branding is important. It is not only what makes a memorable impression, but it also sets a consumer’s expectation of the company. In the last century, a company’s branding was primarily focused on the individual products they produced. For example, we all knew what a Camaro or a Corvette was but we didn’t know much about Chevrolet as a company or as a brand. Their advertising was transactional and the message was simple: Live the amazing life as demonstrated in the TV commercial or billboard by buying and using this product. You could also apply this example to so many other brands from this period of time.
A Millenial Transition to Experience
But it did not stay this way. Understanding how this transition happened helps to position us as leaders in this space. Not to get too historical, but the millennial consumer happened. Their trust in traditional, “big companies” who collectively filled the airwaves with their products, decreased. Cash strapped millennials tended to reject corporate ladder-climbing, preferring experiences over the consumption of products. On a larger scale, the real power shifted to the consumer because most people now carried the equivalent of a personal computer in the palm of their hand. The consumer now had, like never before, access to unlimited research, shopping, customization, and delivery options. In just two or three clicks on a smartphone, almost anything could be delivered straight to our doorsteps. As a response to this “new normal”, companies reflexively flooded every perceivable media channel with ads. “Branding” products became ubiquitous, it seemed. It also seemed like a product or service was promoted in every area of our lives…at all times!
Survival takes a lesson from the Themed Entertainment Industry
Many companies did not survive the transition. But the brands that thrived did so because they created a new paradigm not only in their products and services, but also in the way they branded them. Many learned from the Themed Entertainment Industry and created physical places, distilling their brand attributes into designed physical environments. In so doing, they successfully made emotional connections between their products and their consumers. These locations went far beyond mere “stores”. The act of purchasing products became more experiential and companies who couldn’t pivot fast enough or adapt to this trend went out of business. We all saw this happen. The brands that survived implemented many of these changes.
Look at Chevrolet now: They have a corporate alliance partnership with The Disney Company and have sponsored an attraction at Walt Disney World. Guests can “experience” Chevrolet in a very different way than through a traditional television ad or a test drive at a dealership. There are many brands that have created physical experiences and have made similar connections between product and consumer: Apple, Lego, Coke, Lululemon, Starbucks, and M&M’s have, just to name a few. I’m sure you can think of many other examples. All of these companies used to sell “products”. But now they sell “experiences” and their brands have evolved to represent this shift. Too, the customers who frequent these brands have a demographic that is as diverse as those who visit themed entertainment experiences.
For example, consider how broad the demographic is for those who drink Coca Cola brand cola or Starbucks coffee. The demographic is so wide that it goes beyond the standard metrics such as age, gender, and income. Thus, creating an experience around a product like Coca Cola, The Coca-Cola company has demonstrated far greater long-term success for a brand than the previous methodology. “By staging a series of experiences, companies are better able to achieve a lasting effect on the buyer than through an isolated event, [like a single product sale]”– The Experience Economy, Pine & Gilmore. Much has been written on this transformation from a business and economic perspective. However, it would be beneficial to review it from the creative and design perspective.
Aligning Brand with Audience
A design team should thus develop a framework for creating a dimensional experience that meets the needs of both brand and audience. They do this by examining the company brand attributes and aligning them with their various target audience groups. For example, if two of a brand’s core attributes are “refreshing” and “healthy”, the first step would be to develop a list of words or short phrases that represent the characteristics of these two attributes. Undoubtedly, the company’s marketing team would be primary in delivering these attributes. For “Refreshing”, they might list energizing, fresh (unexpectedly new), restorative, vitality, and cool (temperature). For “Healthy”, the team might list active, full-of-life, lively, longevity, and fit. This example is not meant to comment on any of Coke’s current immersive brand locations, it is just an illustration.
A key potential difference in this exercise, however, is to identify the characteristics that the company wants its audience to say about their experience with the brand. For example, how would Coke want their audience to relate their experiences when visiting “Coke, the place?” This is not necessarily related to some of their other specific products like Diet Coke or Sprite, which have different consumers.
Let’s just say that the design team develops a priority list for each of these attributes for Coke. These characteristics can then be used to further generate the framework of physical design by assigning colors, materials, shapes, and possible activities that best represent these attributes. One could possibly imagine bright colors; light, translucent materials; colored lighting, and organic shapes as embodying “Refreshing” and “Healthy”. The addition of flowing water, moving air (wind) and landscaping would further contribute to this environment as well as elements that encourage active play or fun.
The other criteria for the design team to consider would be the audience of this brand experience. If the audience is primarily children, the considerations would be very different than if they were mature adults. What if this environment had to support an audience of both of those demographics? It would become a third design consideration altogether! Creating an environment that resonates with and is relevant to an audience is our goal in Themed Experience design. Layering in the attributes of the brand in a physical way, as we’ve looked at, is how a company’s brand is “dimensionalized”.
The Introduction of Story
After the work of aligning physical attributes to the brand characteristics and the company’s primary audience, the design team can then leverage this result. This is where we introduce “story” into the design. The brand’s existing story is usually the most powerful way to link all of these elements together. It creates a through-line, or a framework, for all of the design decisions to be made on the project. Sometimes the brand wants to showcase a new market they are entering or they want to tap into a specific portion of its audience through the creation of a new product or experience. All of those elements and attributes will give the design team what they need to develop a perfect storyline that will deliver everything, especially the business goals.
Story is often thought of as the reasoning behind the creation of an experience and that is not completely wrong. I have always thought of story as the “vehicle” for delivering the business goals by synergistically aligning those goals with the brand attributes and audience to create the “the place”. The resulting destination would then experientially represent the brand attributes in a physical way to specific audience members who would emotionally connect with that experience and foster the desire to return and experience it again.
Creating this “ideation framework” is one way to distill the processes we use in the Theme Entertainment Industry when developing experiences and can be applied to any design project that requires a story and an emotional connection to the brand. You can see how this process could be used in a retail or dining project; but what about a healthcare facility or hospital? A school? Once you have these principles and the process understood, I believe you can apply it to any design project that would benefit from making a brand a physical destination.
As a personal example, while working as the creative executive on Disney Springs, I spent many hours with multiple brands who were designing and building their locations at the newly expanded RD&E (Retail, Dining and Entertainent) property. Our largest retail tenant, UniQlo was creating a flagship store for the Southeastern US, the first in the region. They had recently opened a flagship store in Shanghai, China and worked very closely with Disney there, because it was being timed with our newest resort opening.
The UniQlo leadership team and their design firm in Tokyo wanted to use many of the elements from that store design in Orlando for their Disney Springs store. I had a problem with this since the Shanghai store was overwhelmingly styled to represent Disney characters and stories. Sculpted characters, princesses, large verbiage on the walls, etc… Although this representation of UniQlo’s young, hip, pop-culture fashion brand was perfect for a population of Chinese who never experienced Disney characters, stories or brand before; I felt it wouldn’t work for WDW guests especially with our World of Disney store as a neighboring retailer! So I spent the next year working with their leadership and design firm to convince them of adjustments to be made so their store was relevant for our audience. I recommended that they lean into their own brand story: They are a Japanese company with an incredibly rich history of art and design. We settled on representing their store design and displays in a uniquely Japanese way with Disney accents (like subtle characters in patterns) but doing it all in a very artistic and non-traditional way. They worked with several well-known, young Japanese artists to create the displays and branding throughout the store location. It was a huge hit! In reality, I helped them to represent their own brand story in a way that would resonate with an audience they had never worked with before. Together, we crafted a design story that Walt Disney World audiences were drawn to. The result was seen in their incredibly successful business goals.
I hope you use this process in your design projects large or small and see great results from it. Using story to make powerful connections between audience members and brand will deliver long-term results.
Note from themedattraction: For those of you already established in themed entertainment, Theron offers a mentorship program to help you on your journey. This will give you direct access to a entertainment executive with VP level experience at Walt Disney Imagineering. For those of you who have questions or need help with a concept, or want to book one-on-one time, Theron is available at https://www.designerscreativestudio.com/