Going Local for Memorable Experiences

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You have been working hard and deserve a vacation. If you were told you would have the perfect “dream” vacation but have no memory of it afterwards, how much would you be willing to pay? Chances are, not very much. But, why? Even though the experience of the vacation would be utterly blissful, it would fail to deliver what we really want—memories. In our search for meaning, those memories help us build a personal narrative of our lives and are more valuable to us than the experience itself, and as research tells us, even more valuable than material possessions.

It is not just tourists that seek memorable experiences. Research in behavioral psychology has produced compelling evidence that experiences make people happier than acquiring material possessions. Once basic needs are met, experiences like hiking, taking cooking classes and travel bring us more happiness than buying new cars, clothes or accessories—and this holds true across generations. The relative value we place on experiences also grows along with our income. That is, the more affluent we become, the higher the value we place on memorable experiences over new possessions.

So what does this mean for the makers and purveyors of material possessions? It suggests that retailers should do more to create memorable experiences that deepen the engagement with customers and perhaps even become a part of customer’s personal story. But how?

Insights from Hospitality

One place to look for answers is the hospitality industry. Although retailers can learn from hospitality to improve the quality of customer service, it is the fundamental insight that tourism is driven by a desire for memories and stories that can have the greatest impact on retail—especially retail design.

The hospitality industry has long responded to this insight by developing properties and programs inspired by, and unique to, each location. Stop for a moment and imagine a Four Seasons Hotel in Maui; now imagine one in Paris, and now imagine a Four Seasons Hotel in Beijing—three connected but very distinct images come to mind. Now do the same mental exercise with Gucci, Cartier or Dior. In each case, a single dominant uniform image comes to mind—the “place” is irrelevant. This is a missed opportunity for retailers to tell a richer brand story which will support a deeper engagement with customers.


The First Step—Sensitivity to Context

As a guest at a White House dinner with the President, one would give some thought to how one should dress and choose something that is appropriate to the occasion. Likewise, one would dress for a vacation in Bermuda or Maine differently than when interviewing for a job on Wall Street or planning a night out on the town. In each situation, one adapts one’s appearance and takes the opportunity to display different facets of one’s personality. It would be odd to show up at each event dressed identically, but worse, you would have missed the opportunity to demonstrate a certain intelligence and depth. And the same holds true for branded retailers who roll-out identical stores from place to place ignorant of the sensibility of each location.

One might argue, however, that the integrity of a brand depends on a strict adherence to consistent execution at retail and that any local adaptation will surely dilute the brand. But this view is based on a static and somewhat narrow view of brand identity; one that ultimately limits its power to engage with customers and influence consumer choice.

While a near identical roll-out is certainly easierto execute from a brand management and resource perspective, it fails to fully exploit, what branding guru David Aaker calls, the “brand as asset.” To fully utilize the brand as an asset, one needs a more expansive and nuanced view of brand identity. When fully understood, brands can be rich worlds and the character and sensibility of each store location is an opportunity to reveal—not dilute—the brand.

The Spirit of Localism

In Ancient Rome each neighborhood identified a protective spirit called a “genius loci” that reflected the special character of that district. Since then, genius loci has come to mean the “spirit of the place,” that distinctive ambiance or character. Tailoring each store to its unique environment offers brands the opportunity to tell a richer story and develop a deeper engagement with customers. Each store must, of course, be faithful to the brand but also reflect unique aspects of each location. That is, although they would both be faithful expressions of the brand, the design of a store in Barcelona would not be the same as a store in Paris. And a store on the Parisian Right Bank would not be interchangeable with a store on the Left Bank, as the character and sensibility of the two are distinct.

Although it is possible to find superficial attempts to connect store design with the location by installing historical images of the neighborhood, a few brands are truly adapting the store design to reveal the brand and connect with customer’s desire for memorable experiences. Leaders in this approach are Ralph Lauren, Tiffany & Co., Anthropologie and now even ubiquitous Starbucks appears to be experimenting with, what some call, “localism.”

Experiencing Localism

Perhaps the most consistent and confident exponent of localism in store design is Ralph Lauren. One only has to step in to the store in Aspen and instantly you know, first, you are in a Ralph Lauren environment and second, you are in Aspen. You are transported to the Aspen of your dreams and allowed to experience it. You can literally buy into that experience by simply opening your wallet.

The same can be said of the Ralph Lauren stores in Nantucket, SoHo, Beverly Hills, etc. Even the Paris stores on the Left and Right Banks are suited to their neighborhoods reflecting the refinement of Avenue Montaigne and the Bohemian elegance of St. Germain. Accomplishing what perhaps only an American brand could, the Ralph Lauren brand is big enough and confident enough to embrace the world without fear of diluting its clarity or strength.

Localism Revealing the Brand

Tiffany & Co.’s Fifth Avenue flagship store opened in 1940 and has provided design inspiration for the branch stores for many years. Up until around 2008, one could see a number of the details and materials of the beloved and famous flagship applied directly to new locations—with mixed results. Two philosophical shifts occurred that led to a new era in store design. The first was to look to the beauty and heritage of the Tiffany brand itself for store design inspiration instead of a narrower focus on the flagship building itself. And second was to look to the character and sensibility of each of the store locations for inspiration. Founded in 1837, Tiffany has a rich history and archives. The brand’s authenticity is one of its core assets. Creative adaptations in the design of each location provides an opportunity to reveal yet another facet of the jewel. The Barcelona store’s playful ribbon ceiling subtly reflects that region’s Catalan culture while also reinforcing Tiffany’s artistic heritage and penchant for whimsy. The store on the Champs Elysees reflects the heritage, glamour and optimism of this American in Paris while incorporating and celebrating traditional Parisian detailing.

Tiffany’s award-winning SoHo store simultaneously celebrates the brand’s design creativity and the area’s artistic roots by working with 30 artists and artisans, many of them local, and incorporating their work into the design of the store. The atmosphere is decidedly “downtown,” more relaxed, modern and visually stimulating than the midtown flagship. Locals see it as “their store” and tourists are rewarded with a glimpse at an aspect of the brand they may not be as familiar with.

Localism through an Artist’s Eye

Although immediately recognizable, no two Anthropologie stores are the same. This is partly due to the program to support and incorporate the work local artists into the stores. While this might be an afterthought or a half-hearted attempt to connect to the location for some brands, at Anthropologie it is at the core of its culture, centered on a celebration of individual expression. The local flavor comes to life in the store by looking at the brand through the artistic eye of a local. This ensures that the expression is both authentic and consistent with the brand identity.

The Limits of Localism Tested

The value of creating distinctive experiences rooted in the place where a store exists has been recently endorsed by Starbucks. “The mission of each designer is to create a spectacular Starbucks café experience that is steeped in the local culture and designed to reflect the unique characteristics of each neighborhood,” according to Starbucks.com. This can be seen realized in New Orleans, on Capitol Hill, and on London’s chic Conduit Street.

It is at Starbucks, however, that localism will likely face its greatest test. Although they have created a handful of admirable locally inspired locations, with over 21,000 cafes in 65 countries, it is unclear how localism can be managed and implemented at such a scale without creating brand management chaos or being reduced to superficial gestures. It is a worthy goal and we will be watching.

A Profitable Experience

The typical roll-out cookie cutter approach to store design will no longer be enough to remain competitive as consumers increasingly reward retailers who deliver what they value most—memorable distinctive experiences. Localism, where aspects of the spirit of the place serve as a catalyst to tell a richer brand story, is not easy, especially while maintaining a clear expression of brand identity. It requires a rich understanding of the brand, and most of all, creativity. But the reward is deeper customer engagement and ultimately growing profits.



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