How can brands create unforgettable customer experiences that tell the brand story, create value for consumers and emotionally connect with audiences? Marketers are working hard to solve these challenges, and the potential payoff is significant. McKinsey recently reported that efforts to improve the customer experience achieve revenue growth of 5 to 10 percent and cost reductions of 15 to 25 percent in two to three years. Yet marketers are often stuck when it comes to finding inspiration.
From Disney’s Imagineers to the pioneers behind some of today’s most innovative technology developments, the entertainment design industry offers innovative insights around how to delight and engage audiences. We spoke with two of the leading thinkers in this space, Christian Lachel, executive creative director and vice president at BRC Imagination Arts; and Shawn McCoy, vice president of Jack Rouse Associates (JRA).
Connect Emotionally With Your Audience
Creating a great brand experience starts with understanding your audience — specifically, that they’re busy, and time is their most important asset. McCoy advises marketers to remember that when an audience gives you time and attention, they expect something of value in return.
“That value is measured in a variety of ways. They’re asking: Is what you are presenting to me made with care and of high quality? Is the story you are telling me authentic? Are you surprising me? Is your content relevant to me and my life? Are you entertaining me?” says McCoy.
The best way to capture the attention of busy audiences is through an engaging story, in much the same way a film or theme-park attraction does.
“Great stories touch the heart of the audience and take people on unforgettable journeys. The same is true for brand stories. Unforgettable customer experiences have a strong central theme that provides structure, and their narratives reflect shared audience values,” Lachel says. “That’s what leads to a transformative experience that deepens brand loyalty.”
McCoy agrees. “The best experiences are those that create an emotional moment for your audience. It is that instant of unexpected emotion (be it wonder, joy, laugh[ter], a thrill, a sense of nostalgia or even sadness) that allows your story and your message to cut through the clutter and create a lasting impression. Over time, those moments create memories that an audience associates with your brand. That association becomes a long-lasting affinity for your brand.”
Leverage the Universal Properties of Great Storytelling
Understanding what effective storytelling looks like can help marketers craft an experience that goes beyond typical marketing. “It’s about building a narrative structure that pulls the audience through an engaging emotional arc. Often, we see brands get seduced by the technology, but it’s important to remember that gimmicks, a ride apparatus or a piece of cool new tech is not the story. Remember to start with the heart (emotions) and work outward, never the other way around,” Lachel says.
The principles of effective storytelling are universal — and marketers should pay attention to what works in other mediums when designing campaigns. “Great storytelling is about grabbing your audience’s attention, immersing them within an interesting world comprised of great characters and environments and making them feel personally connected to the content. That approach works within a great theme park, a great book, a great movie or a great marketing campaign,” McCoy notes.
Use Technology Strategically … but Only to Tell a Better Story
Technology for the sake of using the trendiest new gadget or digital technique usually falls flat. Instead, Lachel advises, find a way to use technology to tell a better story.
“Technology works best when it’s in service to the brand story. The question we work with our clients to answer is, how can we combine technologies to create more interesting brand experiences that draw audiences into the story and feel lifelike? For example, how can we blend immersive theatrical sets, large-scale media or AR/VR, powerful audio immersion, and special effects to create an experience that feels real for the audience?” Lachel says. “We never want the experience to feel like a one-note trick. It’s about creating the unexpected and finding unique combinations of tech and sensory immersion that support the brand’s narrative. It has to be story first.”
McCoy agrees that technology should be used only to enrich the story. However, he notes, recent technological advances are making it possible to deliver the powerful personalized immersion today’s consumers want.
“The most exciting aspect of recent technology is that it has given designers the ability to create personalized experiences for the audience, where the guest can have a direct impact on their environment and create their own journey. As many of our guests are used to this personalization and control within the gaming world, entertainment designers are looking for ways to create that same type of experience within attractions,” he says.
Immersion: A Key Trend Shaping Brand Experiences
As in other areas of marketing, today’s top trends in delivering customer experiences are all about immersion and engagement. “We’re definitely seeing audiences craving deeper immersion and participation. Today’s audiences don’t want to be spectators; they want to be involved,” Lachel says.
McCoy sees the future potential in using emerging technology formats to deliver deeper immersion. “As virtual reality, augmented reality and hyper-reality (i.e., The Void) continue to evolve, these technologies are providing designers with greater freedom to imagine and deliver experiences that weren’t previously possible, even just a few years ago. I think that savvy marketers will also leverage these emerging technologies to create experiential events that transport their audiences to amazing places that are relevant to their brands.”
Working With a Creative Agency
As marketers think bigger about delivering innovative experiences, many are turning to the brain trust of the entertainment design industry for potential partners. A closer look at many agency portfolios — including Jack Rouse Associates and BRC Imagination Arts — shows innovative brand projects alongside big attraction development. How can marketers choose the partner that’s right for their brand?
Start with an agency that can focus on what your customers are looking for, Lachel suggests. “At BRC, we listen to our clients, and we seek to deeply understand their audiences. We want to understand not only the brand’s key performance indicators but also the relationship the brand shares with its customers. We look for ways we can deepen that relationship through emotional engagement.”
McCoy notes that once you’ve reviewed their portfolio for creative alignment, it’s important to make sure their approach resonates with your brand — at both a personality and process level.
“Does the designer really listen to the client and adapt their thinking, or are they constantly trying to impose their own views upon the project? Does the designer have a reputation for being a good collaborative partner? Does the designer’s process really promote this collaboration? Is the designer able to translate their core design philosophies to diverse types of visitor experiences? A partner is one who not only has a proven ability to create amazing experiences; but is able to listen, collaborate and adapt their design style to create equally innovative brand experiences,” McCoy says.
Finally, evaluate the company’s ability to bring that vision to life. In other words, make sure they can really pull it off.
“The other thing marketers should be looking for is a strong conductor and producer who can help pull together the various elements and choreograph them into a successful experience,” Lachel says.
As experiences become an important part of marketing, there’s a range of inspiration from the theme-park and attraction worlds that can take brand-building to the next level. From mastering immersion to finding the intersection between technology and storytelling, there are numerous factors. But the payoff in both immediate sales and long-term loyal customers is proving to be well worth the investment.
Liz Alton writes about digital marketing and her work has been featured on USA Today, Forbes, Inc, Harvard Business Review and Entrepreneur. Her specialties include all things marketing, technology, B2B, big data/analytics, cloud and mobility. She holds a Bachleor’s degree in journalism from University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth and an MBA from Western Governors University. She is currently pursuing a Master’s in Journalism from Harvard University. Liz is a paid contributor to THINK Marketing.