In the Age of Emotion

When historians look back on the early years of the 21stcentury they will note a paradigm shift from the closing years of the Information Age to the dawning of a new age, The Age of Emotion.  Now, there are those that would argue that in a period defined by prolonged economic ennui ROI is the only thing that really matters and pricing is the only real consideration consumers think about – the rest is fluff.  But I disagree. Why? Because we’re not talking about trends here, which are ultimately short lived, but cultural patterns which are sustained and signal a shift in worldview.levis-store-lighting-design-4.jpg

On a fundamental level, we are more in tune with our emotional needs than at any time in recent history, or at the very least we have more time to reflect on them.  We focus increasingly on satisfying our emotional needs and pop culture both reflects and creates this. It is a cycle. One needs look no further than the multi-billion dollar self-help industry as an example. Talk shows abound focusing on the emotional displays of the masses and the advice given out in front of an audience of millions.

And this growing focus on the emotional has extended into the shopping and retail experience.  Increasingly we will see a subtle, yet profound difference in the way people relate to products, services and the world around them. Retailers increasingly focus on the nature of the in-store experience, converting the space from a place to showcase goods, to a location, a destination, a stage on which we perform.  And indeed, shopping is as much about performance as it is about consumption.  Just as fulfilling emotional needs has become the domain of brand development, it is increasingly becoming a centerpiece of the retail experience, at least for retailers focused on margins rather than volume. Rationality will take a back-seat to passion as we move from the sensible to the sensory.  While ROI is the obsession today, Return on Insights and Return on Emotional Satisfaction will be the leading factors in the years to come.

For the developed world and the world’s emerging economies, time and money equate to an increased use of brands and shopping as emotional extensions of ourselves.  Status, power, love, etc. are wrapped into the subconscious motivations for choosing one location over another.  And while we are still bargain hunters, the hunt is less about price than it is about the experience of the hunt.  Again, emotion drives the process, even when we say it doesn’t. “Experience” is emotional shorthand.

Successful companies will learn to pay more attention to how their customers react emotionally and how their brands can fulfill emotional needs.  In the Emotion Age, brands will either lead the way to customer satisfaction or be left in the dust.

 

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Embracing the Whiteboard

Navigating nearly any company today means being well acquainted with whiteboards, sharpies, and post-it notes. But how they’re used differs from setting to settings. In most corporate environments, you rarely see them used as a tools for innovation. Whiteboards in conference rooms are often devoid of any meaningful content and those hanging in offices are typically to-do lists.  Post-its are reminders to call such and such department, mini to-do lists, or notes to pick up milk on the way home. In contrast, agencies (whether design, advertising, or any other creatively inclined job type) use them as tools for ideation and collaboration. The reason is simple: in any creative firm, we sell time and thinking. Whiteboards and post-its are the tools by which we bring these things to life.

This isn’t to say that corporate environments lack the creative spark, but deign and idea generation follow a different pattern and are one of a number of functions. Additionally, most corporate environments are not designed spatially to drive collaboration in what is, ultimately, a very public, very exposed way of creative problem solving. People are spread out over multiple floors and grouped by departmental function rather than by task. What this means is that cross-functional teams are difficult to bring together in a single space where they can have discussions and working sessions with a shared work pallet. In an agency setting, because we sell ideas above all else, the shared space becomes the norm out of necessity. Collaborative ideation is the central theme of most interactions, and therefore the public expression of the ideas are emergent. In other words, we must come together and work very collaboratively in order to fulfill our central functions – design and innovation. You have to see thoughts develop in real time, respond, build, break, and build again.

Why does any of this matter? Because what I’m suggesting is that for a corporate setting to become more adaptive, more creative, and more inspired, it needs to embrace the idea of an iterative, public work process. It needs to take a design thinking approach to daily problem solving. Design thinking is an approach that can be used to consider issues and resolve problems more broadly than within professional design practice, and has been applied in business and to social issues. Design thinking includes “building up” ideas, with few, or no, limits on breadth during a “brainstorming” phase. This helps reduce fear of failure in the people involved in the work and encourages input and participation from a wide variety of sources in the ideation phases.

In order to survive in today’s complex world, organizations need to generate, embrace, and execute on new ideas. That takes creativity and a creatively capable workforce. It also means embracing the whiteboard and ideation in an open forum.  It’s the secret sauce, or in evolutionary terms, it’s what keeps you fit. Organizations without it can’t compete. So, pick up the sharpie, break out the post-its, and step up to the board. The end results will transform your company and your brand.

 

PREFUNKING: Ethnography, booze, and neon drink

First Published in Peeps Forum:

In its original formulation, Sparks was one of the first alcoholic beverages to contain caffeine. Its other original active ingredients included taurine, ginseng, and guarana, the backbone ingredients of traditional energy drinks. It also contained 6% alcohol. Packaged in a can that looked like a AAA battery, its labeling boldly and loudly stated all of its ingredients and its 6% alcoholic content by volume.  Its flavor was similar to other energy drinks mixed with malt liquor, having a tart, sugary, synthetic taste. Its color was a vibrant day-glow orange. All of this added up to a drink that caught the attention of twenty-somethings. They were the people in the know; tattoo chic, experimenting, and bringing trends to life, not the people on the cutting edge of what is cool, but not the late comers to the subcultural party. Sparks was a catalyst for exploring a wilder side. It was what you took to a party, a kickball game, a rave or an outdoor concert.

Sparks was bought by Miller Brewing in 2006, but for all its success, Miller’s initial marketing campaigns fell flat. Sales, though strong, remained essentially unchanged from one year to the next. While the success of Sparks was tremendous, they hadn’t a clue about the people drinking it. There was plenty of data about the age group, but when it came to the lives and habits of the consumers, they really didn’t “get” them. Despite all of the traditional marketing data they held in their hands, Sparks was shaping up to be a puzzle they couldn’t solve. And so they reached out to ethnographers to get at the heart of the matter. What was it about this drink that Miller just didn’t quite get? After spending millions on the product, Miller was decidedly keen to get to the bottom of this mystery.

SHAPING THE CAMPAIGN

Initially, Miller had relied on a traditional campaign strategy – images of people at fairly tame social gatherings, savoring Sparks the way one might savor a beer after a long day at work, focusing on flavor. They even considered changing the formulation of the drink to offer an array of flavors that weren’t so dramatic, packaging the cans in twelve packs for sharing and easy storage, and mimicking other beverage producers with on-premises promotions that emphasized flavor and direct competition with the Red Bull and vodka crowd. In the end, Miller chose a different route, based on what came out of the fieldwork. The strategy focused on the one thing that made Sparks special; its sheer absurdity and embodiment of sanitized rebellion.

Sparks was defined by its users. They felt a large degree of control over it and a deep appreciation for the fact that its ingredients simply weren’t meant to go together. Sparks represented a categorical frame that defied convention and the campaign we helped them develop reflected that. The focus moved away from traditional advertising and competing directly with the competition. Instead, the strategy was to become a presence at transitory events such as raves, mutant bike rallies, skateboarding competitions, music festivals that weren’t in the mainstream, but not so far outside the norm as to be overlooked. Event were chosen that reflected a sanitized sense of rebellion. Photo-bombing was encouraged and recipes were shared. One Brooklyn kickball team took it upon themselves to use the Sparks can as their mascot, shooting it “doing things” before every game, which led to competition between teams for posting the best shots.  One woman and her roommate gave the world their recipe for a Sparks float. While the drink is interesting, having had a couple of Sparks before trying it helps with the flavor.

The other central aspect of the campaign was to focus on small, stop-and-go liquor stores and groceries, rather than worrying about what happened at the bar. Bars are about projection of sophistication, group affiliation, and building group identity in a closed environment with certain social rules. Sparks was all about the individual drinking it and being part of a group activity defined by being temporary and over the top. The places where Sparks was consumed were about mutability and liminality, which fit right in with the places it was typically bought. Finally, the product itself saw no change. Making it taste “good” defeated the purpose and devalued the drink. It was one thing to introduce Blackberry Sparks, but quite another to mask the strange, chemically flavor notes that made the drink cool. Equally important to keep the unusual flavor, changes to the packaging were made to reflect its utility, giving it greater symbolic credibility and making it something you could show off to your friends and strangers.

All of these elements came together to ignite a simple idea: Sparks isn’t something you drink so much as it was something you used, whether for the obvious physical effects or to set the stage to an evening (or, less often, a day) where abandonment of social norms was the rule.  This meant Miller had to embrace greater risk and deviate from its normal operating procedures. They couldn’t stick with a brand image that was intentionally subdued. They could focus on the middle of the bell curve, but had to embrace the people who were setting trends. It was a gamble, but one that paid off. Under the new campaign direction, Sparks saw sales and awareness increase 20% after having been stagnant for well over a year. So how did we get there?

GETTING DIRTY: PREPARING AND PLANNING

Everything begins with a solid methodology. Defining our target was based on Miller’s data, but went beyond basic demographics, the reason being twofold. First, traditional segmentation is often, if not always, too restrictive and not designed to reflect the fact that people are social creatures, not individuals who function outside of cultural realities. In other words, while we like to think we’re individuals, we are products and shapers of our cultures and context shapes how we think, act, and believe. Rather than going after individuals, we designed the research to focus on cultural groups and settings.  What are the situations in which drinking is occurring? How do we type different drinking situations? How do they change through time? How do people outside the target segment reflect and shape a given context? Treating the moments in which interactions occurred is if they were also the sample allowed us to look at Sparks from a different angle, not just from the position of product and/as person.

Once we began defining who we would use as our person of entry into a given setting and thinking through the possible drinking contexts we would need to see, we began the process of developing field teams and determining where geographically we would go. Developing field teams involves more than simply picking out observant individuals with a knack for interviewing and conversing with strangers, it meant taking time to reflect on strengths, individual psychologies, and interpretive skills. Taking more than two ethnographers into the field is, in my estimation, a mistake but the same can often be said about taking a single ethnographer. Having more than two people simply makes the situation awkward and leads to a lab-rat situation where people are more concerned with feeding you what they think you want to hear than letting you into their world for a time. This was extremely important for the Sparks work because we wanted an “inside/outsider” approach; someone the participants could teach and another they felt comfortable bringing into the group. By having two sets of minds with different views and backgrounds, it’s easier to triangulate observations and determine what is interpretive bias vs. what’s actually going on. Individually, what we learn may look very different, but together we start to see patterns emerge.

Deciding the locations of study was, perhaps, an easier task. Sparks had a fairly finite range of consumption – the hipper parts of town. Initially, the client wanted us to focus exclusively on their three largest markets, New York, Chicago and LA. We, however, thought that while these were certainly legitimate, the cities were limiting. The reason is twofold. First, if were going to grow the market we needed to see what was happening in places other than the Big 3. Second, if the defining characteristic of the Sparks buyer (and potential Sparks buyer) was being part of a cool group, we needed to see how that was defined in cities other than the top trend setters in the US. All this guides the decision about the field sites we choose. In the end we settled on the New York metro (primarily the Williamsburg area, but also the Lower East Side, Harlem, and Greenwich Village), Portland (smaller population), Austin (college town defined as a bastion of weirdness in an otherwise conservative state) and Atlanta (emerging as a major music hub at the time). With the planning and prep out of the way, and with the blessing of the client, we were ready to go.

HEADING INTO THE FIELD

Ethnography involves significantly more than one-on-one interviewing. The whole humankind is riven with contrasting practices, cultures, tongues, traditions and world views. A cultural context may exist on levels as diverse as a workplace, a family, a building, a city, a county, a state, a nation, a continent, a hemisphere etc. A cultural context provides a shared understanding of meaning provides a framework for what “works” in the world. It is what helps you recognize “your kind” in all senses of the word. Getting at this sort of knowledge can’t be uncovered exclusively through the interview process.

So in the case of Sparks, this meant meeting with our key informants and their friends. It meant going out on the town, so to speak, as they engaged in any number of activities. Inevitably, this led us to bars, parties, etc. Being in the moment, taking advantage of unexpected fieldwork situations to gather information, became the unspoken mantra of the research. One of our key informants had us meet in her Williamsburg apartment the night she was throwing a party. Much to our delight, nearly everyone attending had a couple of cans of Sparks with them, along with a six pack of something else, usually an import. The six packs went in the fridge or on the fire escape, it was a brutally cold winter, so people took advantage of the situation, but the cans of Sparks stayed with the owner. What we discovered was surprisingly simple – one can was used to kick start the evening and the other was downed at about midnight or 1:00 to keep the party going. Functionally, the product was all about what several participants called the “pre-funk”.

But Sparks isn’t as simple as the obvious functional benefits. It’s property that is guarded, like someone’s stash. And more importantly, it’s a symbol that tells everyone the drinker has license to break the rules and to turn the night into something more than a casual get together. Inevitably, when you’re drinking Sparks, the expectation is that you’ll be out late engaging in the unexpected. In one case it meant heading to a rave in in the Bronx, followed by a sunrise trip to Hoboken to find a place that served legendary waffles. In another, it set the stage for semi-nude wrestling on the front lawn in the cold and damp of a Portland winter. The important thing to take away from this is that a pattern of behavior emerged that we wouldn’t have gotten had had we simple conducted an interview. We had to be in the moment.

And it is out of these moments that good insights, not just data points, begin to emerge. For example, what do you do when it turns out a recruit doesn’t fit the sample defined by the client segmentation? You can, of course, always walk away, but you run the risk of missing a moment that would otherwise be overlooked. In one case we found ourselves at the apartment of a 28-year-old male living on the Upper East Side. He had gotten into the mix because he was making under $50,000 a year (the majority of Sparks drinkers were not affluent and so the client had asked that we cap the incomes). However, the participant, Marco, was taking time off from his job as the head of social media for a major clothing brand. At the time he left he was making upwards of $300,000. Marco clearly fell outside the segmentation scheme, but as it turned out, our day with Marco was instrumental to the success of the project. As it turned out, while he stocked his pantry with high-quality wines and liquor, he was also an avid Sparks fan. Not so much for its energy properties, but because it allowed him to reconnect with what he saw as his rebel past. Marco recounted his early years in New York, struggling to get by and living a romanticized quasi-punk existence. Every Sunday, Marco would spend the day in Brooklyn with his pre-affluence friends building and riding mutant bikes and the searching out the “worst” or “most ridiculous” drink possible. For Marco, and for almost all the Sparks fans we met, Sparks became a something that not only gave them symbolic license to act in ways they normally wouldn’t, but also provided them with a sense of connection to their youth.

HEADING HOME: MOMENTS OF INSIGHT

After leaving the field the hard work begins. Literally hundreds of pieces of information from different field teams have to be synthesized into a meaningful set of patterns, and the final output can be large and daunting.  That works well if your goal is academic, but when all is said and done, our clients are looking for direction and specific ideas on which they can act. In the case of Sparks, several key conceptual points bubbled to the surface. The first was to capitalize of the idea of function vs. connoisseurship. Sparks has a fairly clear purpose of establishing a physical state vs. status. Unlike, say Oban (seek it out if you’re unfamiliar), Sparks does not convey taste or knowledge about culinary matters. It does convey knowledge about being part of the inner circle of cool.  Above all else, Sparks functions as a means of kicking off the night and gives the drinker license to behave in unexpected ways. Second, Sparks has an undertone of humor to it. Throughout the research, participants talked about the cartoonishness of the drink – the “absurdity” of the battery-like can, the color, the very idea of combining malt liquor and an energy drink. Sparks was a manifestation of incongruity in beverage form, bricolage in a can.  Not surprisingly, urban myths and folklore about Sparks were in ready supply. For example, more than one participant told us, “If you drink more than three you may die”. Another told us that if you leave a glass of it out overnight, it would eat through the bottom, though they had never tried the experiment themselves. One participant firmly believed that if taken to a picnic, Sparks would be the only item ants would avoid. None of it was taken all that seriously, but that simply added to the fun. The brand’s very absurdity was a major strength.

Finally, Sparks tied in with symbols of youth. It signified rebellion and a lack of inhibitions. It also represents a sense of abandon where mortality is challenged. Almost everyone we spoke with commented at some point that they would stop drinking the stuff before they were thirty. As one participant said, “I know this stuff is killing me, but I’m still young, I have time.” Sparks tempts fate, it reifies the drinker’s youth and briefly puts them in opposition to the larger culture without having to commit to a permanent state of rebellion.

All of this led to a number of clear recommendations, some of which flew in the face of what the data and the focus groups said. First, it was extremely important to keep the flavor funky. Tasting strange, like the color of the drink, gave it credibility. Tasting strange solidifies it as a symbol of absurdity, making the drink a publicly displayed symbol of their “inner cool.” Second, Miller had to rethink packaging. Like the flavor, the can itself is a symbol drinkers use to let others know that social norms are fluid while drinking it. But this is not a drink you share. You only drink 2-3 in a night, which meant six packs are useless. It’s all about grab and go, not something you stockpile, savor, or sip with friends. That means designing two packs and three packs. Third, the brand had to accept that on-trade is not where success lies, at least not initially. Cans in a bar are unacceptable, unless the product is seen as a throwback drink (i.e. retro beers, etc.). On the surface, Red Bull and vodka might not appear that dissimilar from Sparks, but what they convey in a bar is vastly different. Cans are acceptable in public space when it is truly public. Finally, Miller needed to rethink traditional media. Because of an inherent distrust of advertising, the rise of social media, and word of mouth being the most trustworthy means of communicating “cool”, print, radio, and TV had little relevance. Live events and being in unexpected places, such as sponsoring a last-minute street party or having a presence at a mutant bike rally, adds credibility and cache to the brand. Sparks, unlike the other products in the parent brand’s suite, needed to break away from everything the company was comfortable with. Indeed, it needed to work in opposition to it.

THE SAD DEMISE OF SPARKS

Unfortunately, for all its success, Spark has faded into the background, the reason being that all the “good stuff” was removed, stripping it of the very things that made it work. In September 2008, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington D.C.-based watchdog group, sued MillerCoors (Miller Brewing and Coors had merged the year before), claiming that its Sparks alcoholic beverages that include caffeine are a health hazard. Next, Congress began a probe. But the suit never made it to court. Three months later, at the behest of San Francisco and 13 states, distributor MillerCoors  buckled and announced it would remove the caffeine and other energy-drink ingredients from its Sparks line of energy drinks, and would change its marketing campaign. With the ingredients gone, Sparks simply didn’t have a campaign or a product that mattered. The drink still exists, but the brand has fallen into the shadows of the broader MillerCoors portfolio as sales have declined over time.

For better or for worse, the work we did increased awareness, market share and sales. Unfortunately, it also helped put the brand squarely in the crosshairs. Had Sparks remained quietly in the background, it might not have garnered the ire of watchdog groups. The drink was representational of the people who drank it: outsiders, rebels, people who are often seen as a threat by the standard order. Sparks, like heavy metal or punk in the 80s, was more than a potential health hazard, it was a threat to the status quo. By bringing it into a more accepted space, it challenged what drinking “should be”. And so, Sparks became a target as it grew in popularity, and ultimately was undone by the very factors which had driven the marketing campaign that had made it so successful.  Even so, what the client and our team learned from the research done on this project continues to be used to this day, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the greatest compliment a project can receive.

 

Simple Steps in Journey Maps

A customer journey map is a very simple idea: a diagram that illustrates the steps your customers go through in engaging with your company, whether it be a product, an online experience, retail experience, or a service, or any combination. It’s nothing new, we’ve all done them or been involved in their development. But what makes for a good map?

First, complexity is, ultimately, your friend. Yes, this flies in the face of the “keep it simple, stupid” mantra, but there is a solid rationale for it.  Journey maps are tools and need to account for as many actions, triggers, and processes as possible to ensure nothing is overlooked. Sometimes customer journey maps are “cradle to grave,” looking at the entire arc of engagement. Other times they may focus on a finite interaction or series of steps. In either case, how people maneuver through the process of making a buying decision is more complex than the channels in which they navigate – it is wrapped up in cultural and behavioral mechanisms that influence and shape every other action. That includes emotional elements that are often overlooked in designing a journey map. With that in mind, capturing emotional, cultural, and symbolic elements of the journey is as important as capturing functional and structural ones.

From a business perspective, it ensures getting the customer through the process and converting them to a long-term advocate. Brand love is big. A great out-of-box experience is like a little piece of theater. Scripting it well helps guide the customer through the first steps of using their new purchase and minimizes expensive calls into help lines.

So, what elements make for a good journey?

  • Actions: What actions are customers taking to move themselves on to the next stage?
  • Motivations: Why is the customer motivated to keep going to the next stage? What emotions are they feeling?
  • Questions: What are the uncertainties, jargon, or other issues preventing the customer from moving to the next stage? What are their pain points? What are the points of breakdown?
  • Barriers: What structural, process, cost, implementation, or other barriers stand in the way of moving on to the next stage?
  • Meaning: What meaning does the product, service, etc. play in their worldview? What meaning does it serve and how is it connected to culture?

Filling all these out is best done if grounded in customer research, preferably including in-depth ethnographic exploration. Ask customers to create mind maps and to map out their journeys for you, while you are visiting them also help create a richer journey, producing a participatory structure that allows for greater clarity.

It’s worth noting that a journey is often non-linear. Depending on the complexity of the product or service, the need, the cost, etc. people will move through different stages over a longer period of time. Personality also plays a role. Someone may jump straight from awareness to purchase if they are not inclined to do research and have a strong recommendation from a friend, for example. But the underlying point remains; the more we can account for their thoughts, trigger, processes, and inter-related actions, the better we can tailor the experience to meet their needs.

In the end, there is no single right way to create a customer journey, and your own organization will need to find what works best for your situation, but there are clear elements that help ensure it has the most relevant outcomes. Ensuing you cover all your bases ensures a better end result.

 

 

Of Industrial Landscapes and Natural Space

Over the years the world of marketing and branding has come a long way in understanding how color and images combine to shape the brand experience, and the importance of considering these points when dealing with an array of cultural norms and expectations.  We know red is an auspicious color in China, but is often interpreted as being too aggressive and agitating in the US.  We know that choosing symbolically discordant images and colors can have a strong impact on the viewers psyche.

What hasn’t been touched on with the same degree of interest is Proxemics, the understanding that how the use of space, either literally or in visual representations, can have a dramatic effect on the person experiencing the brand.  It isn’t enough to understand the impact of lighting on cognitive processes of the brain, nor is it enough to understand what messages certain colors convey in different parts of the world.  To truly build a lasting brand presence, we need to understand how the consumers to whom we are marketing distinguish a “place” from a “space,” and what meanings they invest in a physical setting.

Proxemics is the understanding of space in the holistic sense, as well as the cultural association we place upon space.  It is the study of how an environment, at the interactive and interpretive level, is bestowed with meaning by people in daily life.  The term “Proxemics” was coined in the 1950s by Edward Hall to address the study of our conceptualization and use of space, as well as how various differences impact our experiences within a given area.  In other words, Proxemics is the study of place and space from the cultural vantage point.

Proxemics, in its simplest understanding, is broken into two wide areas.  The first is physical territory, such as why desks face the front of a classroom or why front yards in America rarely have a privacy fence.  The second broad area is that of personal territory, the space we carry with us.  It is the space we keep between ourselves and the person with whom we are speaking. In both cases, having a solid understanding of how these dimensions manifest in our modes of communication is pivotal to a successful branding effort. But first, what are we talking about when we say Proxemics as it relates to a brand?

Human perceptions of space, although derived from sensory tools that all humans share, are shaped and patterned by culture. This means that differing cultural frameworks for defining and organizing space are internalized by all people at an unconscious, usually shared level, and can lead to serious failures of communication in cross-cultural settings. At the macro-level, these sensibilities shape cultural expectations about how streets, neighborhoods, groceries, retail settings, and essentially every environment we interact with should be properly organized.  This also means that settings can and do take on a “personality” depending on how they relate to cultural archetypes we posses about a given spatial frame.  For example, the living room archetype has specific elements of light, furniture and furniture placement, color, and wall decoration that signal the space is a living room.  These spatial cues are very different from what we expect in a archetypal board room setting. When used in a retail or business environment, how space is used impacts how customers interpret what that space is “supposed to” be.  In some cases these spaces can typify and inflate the cultural frame, in others they are in some way disruptive.

The Apple Store exemplifies a positive and memorable experience by stripping away elements of a tech-centric environment and replacing them with features associated with a non-technology focused world.  Open space is used liberally and allows patrons to scan the store with few obstructions.  Computers are displayed on countertops, not shelves, along the outer walls.  Tables fill the central space.  Only accessory items are stacked, which allows the eye to easily scan the interior of the store. Warm, natural colors are used rather than loud or cold materials, making the store more inviting.

When all these pieces are put together, the environment signals both a sense of inclusion and exploration reminiscent of the natural landscape. This is lacking in most computer stores. Everything comes together in the physical space to create a distinct personality that is mirrored in every other aspect of the Apple brand, from the website to TV ads. The reasons are a combination of biological and cultural principles.  The eye follows basic evolutionary principals of horizontally scanning the horizon to gather information about the environment.  Rather than focusing on vertical scanning, as in done in most computer and consumer electronics stores, horizontal scanning also promotes eye contact and person-to-person interaction instead of interaction exclusively with the products.  Stools are available at display stations and invite patrons to sit as one would at home, rather than stand. The cultural signal is that we are in a home rather than a store.  Products are de-commoditized and given a warmth that is normally lacking in the cultural understanding of technology.

Contrast this with the layout of most computer/PC stores where items are stacked on shelves, the materials used in displays are sterile and cold, and the focus of the experience is on the technology, rather than how technology fits seamlessly into a consumer’s life.

Personal Space

Moving beyond public space, another important aspect of Proxemics, and one a business frequently has less control over, is the use of culturally constructed personal space. Briefly outlined are the four areas that Americans intuitively respect and use to define personal territory:

  1. Public Space ranges from about 12 to 25 feet and is the distance maintained between the audience and a speaker giving an address.
  2. Social Space ranges from 4 to 10 feet and is used for communication among business associates, strangers using public areas (such as in a retail setting).
  3. Personal Space ranges from 2 to 4 feet and is used among friends and family members, and to separate people waiting in lines. Not surprisingly, this is also the distance assumed in certain retail setting where a greater degree of intimacy is to be conveyed (e.g. a lingerie store).
  4. Intimate Space ranges out to one foot and involves the possibility of (and sometimes probability of) touching. This is reserved for people with whom we are very close or for secretive actions such as whispering.

Personal Space varies dramatically along cultural lines and can have an enormous impact on how a brand is received.  As an example, when visiting Dubai, you might find yourself almost nose to nose with a business associate because their social space equates to intimate space in the US.  You would probably find yourself unconsciously reacting by backing away trying to regain what you view as appropriate social space while your associate unknowingly pursues you across the floor trying to maintain what is the norm for him. The result is that you assign negative meaning to that behavior, considering it rude or odd. Now, imagine this happening in a retail setting, a car dealership, or greeting card store. The result is a negative or awkward experience for the consumer, though they may have difficulty defining what feels wrong.  By extension, the consumer then transfers the sensation of discomfort to the brand as a whole. This has obvious implications for the retailer, but what about the products a retailer sells? For these companies, the challenge becomes how to maximize response and design for different environments and cultural contexts while balancing the costs of producing multiple package designs, merchandising displays or in-store advertising collateral.

How personal space is used in messaging and advertising is equally important.  While you are viewing an ad, rather than participating in an experience firsthand, you still register what is and is not “normal” for those pictured in an ad.  So, for example, beer ads frequently make a point of significantly reducing personal space between men and women, while increasing the distance between men.  The subconscious registry is one of increased intimacy and sexual cues.  However, when these ads are run in parts of the world where sexual norms and rules around inter-gender behavior are different, these images signal improper use of space.

From Space to Place

What all of this means, is that cultural differences in how we interpret space and our physical environment, both public and personal, literal and symbolic, can have a enormous impact on how a brand is perceived.

Clearly, investing in the right location with the right amount of space and the right demographic mix for your target audience is incredibly important.  Equally, so is the sound, temperature, amount of “clutter,” color palette and lighting.  But first and foremost, understanding how space becomes a place and thus, a major aspect of brand, begins by defining an environment by its cultural standards.  It includes determining rules of interpersonal interaction with the staff.  It even involves determining how space will translate in ad collateral.

Ultimately, Proxemics can be a remarkably powerful tool in determining how a brand will manifest itself and be assigned meaning in a range of environments.

Shopping and Interpreting Space

Environmental sensibilities shape cultural expectations about how every environment we interact with should be properly organized. The physical construct envisioned by the architect, the interior designer, the store owner, etc. are all varied to some degree based on how they understand and respond to vague notions like “shopping.”  Add to that the varied, contextually mitigated understandings of the consumer about an activity and space, and designing the elements that are meant to fit into a space becomes highly contentious.  Frequently, retailers and CPG companies build around assumptions that rarely factor in the complex underpinnings of why people shop in a broader cultural context. The misunderstanding and conflicts that can occur from mismatches in conceptions of context, time and space can create considerable dissonance in civility, understanding and sympathy.  And that leads to lackluster sales.

While there are a host of theories and design doctrines that go into constructing a retail environment, methods for retail space design have largely cantered around atmospherics for the last 30 years. Basically, the model states that pleasant environments result in an approach response,  and unpleasant environments result in avoidance. Simply put, if the environment is pleasant it increases arousal and can lead to a stronger positive consumer response. If the environment is unpleasant, increasing arousal level will produce avoidance. The arousal quality of an environment is dependent on its “information load,” i.e., its degree of  Novelty (unexpected, surprising, new, familiar) and Complexity (number of elements, extent of motion or change).  People seek out novel experiences, but novelty becomes a burden and a threat if there is too much happening for the brain to process. Humans want to explore and be entertained, but not to the point of confusion.

The problem is that while the parameters of avoidance and approach, novelty and complexity, hold true at the cognitive and biological levels, they can’t compensate for cultural motivations. They are simply too simple. A contextual model expands on these principles and asks what cultural and symbolic elements can be built into the space to reflect context and the reasons people are shopping in a venue. Are they there to entertain themselves or their kids?  Are they seeking escape from a busy mall? Are they looking to the retail space as an extension of the brand they are shopping for and/or using as a means of personal expression? The point is that brands and shopping serve a wide range or roles.  More so in an era of increasing internet shopping, increased expendable income and access to goods.  The retail space is more complex than cognition and biological responses to stimuli.

Indeed, cultural norms often dictate our notions of comfort and self-worth, as do the various shopping contexts in which we find ourselves. The good news is that the contextualization of these actions by location provides a deep and varied “interaction space” and sets the stage from creating a recognizable brand identity. The key is understanding how the product, the retail space and conceptions of self and other work together as a system of meaning. Shopping begins long before the need to purchase an item arises and you get at a deeper understanding of what matters, in context, by exploring the deeper meanings behind the objects and the activities.  Once you understand that selling toilet paper is about concepts of hygiene and purity, that selling heartworm medication is about our deeper fears of pollution and impurity, or that shopping for clothing is frequently about sex, your range of options increase.

What all of this means is how we interpret space and our physical environment, both public and personal, literal and symbolic, shapes on how a promotion, a marketing message or a brand is perceived. Promotions in high-tragic, high-messaging location, for example, are easily passed over unless the offering has a very clear purpose – it can’t simply be clever. As another example, a high-end grocery isn’t just selling food.  For a husband trying to prepare an anniversary dinner for his wife, the store is selling self-assurance, facilitating love and helping lay the groundwork for a pleasant memory.  That means, potentially, decreasing efficiencies and helping navigate the shopper to areas of the store he may not have considered.

 

 

Cognition and Collective Awareness: Creating “Place” in Retail

Humans favor certain environments that satisfy survival needs. Through millions of years of evolution we are hardwired to seek out environments that signal an increases sense of comfort and  a higher probability of survival.  We seek out evidence of:

  • Abundant resources
  • Minimal threat from predators and aggressors
  • Shelter from the outside world

Much of this is subconscious, but it remains deeply ingrained in our collective psyche. Consequently, humans have evolved a visual preference for spaces that allow us to see without being seen when we so choose.  From a retail perspective, this means developing enclosed spaces that downplay threat and encourage complete emersion in the experience.

Even as we seek out environments that speak to our needs of comfort and survival, humans are inherent risk takers. Enticement and peril are part of the exploration process and without this deep-seated need to explore and take risks, we wouldn’t be human.  Humans need to seek new information and test their skills.

Consequently, we seek out new experiences that can be differentiated from other experiences.  We categorize these experiences, giving them greater meaning and a higher probability of habitual use.  Categorizing and differentiating suggest:

  • Diverse resources
  • Greater stability

Ultimately, this appears to be a contradiction. But there is the possibility of resolution.  Environmental psychologists assume that individuals’ feelings and emotions ultimately determine their behavior. The problem is that people rarely shop as individuals, even if they are alone. On the surface that may sound confusing, but the point is simple. Human beings are cultural creatures, shaped by shared experience and the unavoidable truth that we are part of a complex system of beliefs and interactions. Uncovering those cultural processes and designing a retail experience around them offsets the impact of cognitive responses to an environment.

So what do we do to provide a sense of security while playing to the underlying desire to explore and learn knew things?  We strike a balance.  And we strike that balance by thinking in terms of converting space to place.  Place identity concerns the meaning and significance of places for their inhabitants and users. People create memories within places and form personal and collective connections. The stronger the connection, the more likely they are to frequent the space and to bring new people to that place. The goal is to endow a venue with symbolic meaning, memory and significance.

The sense of place may be strongly enhanced by the setting, or the setting it attempts to project, being written about, being party of stories handed down over time, being portrayed in art or being part of the collective myth.  It can be established through modes of codification aimed at preserving or enhancing places and traditions felt to be of value. All this creates a “database” for framing the socio-physical settings we experience.  By providing customers with symbolic cues in the environment that set it apart from the surrounding area, we cater to the need to delve into the new while subconsciously establishing an element of the known, the safe and the familiar.