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Experiential Branding

As the entertainment pieces of the destinations began to suffer their economic fates, the payoff for the retail users of such destinations began to suffer. The desire to include actual entertainment destinations began to fall off. However, one lesson from the trend stayed intact: Customers were drawn to the overall experience that entertainment created—the "something different," the excitement, the stimulation. Over in the amplified world of marketing, brand managers were taking notes. And thus, the concept of experiential branding was born.

Strike Up the Brand

The 20th Century saw the birth of "The Brand" as the keystone of consumer outreach. This somewhat ephemeral concept grew in importance throughout the last century to the point where people not only believed the brand message—they actually volunteered to display it on their person, paying for the privilege.

In theory, brands establish an identity by association with meaningful ideas, values, and a quality position that people can readily understand. In other words, "I know it, I trust it, and it fits my particular take on life." During the evolution of branding, to fully entice the consumer, differentiation was key: create unique selling propositions that would translate into immediate benefits for the customer—"If I put that stuff in my hair, I'll be the sexiest man alive; if I use the other brand, I'll just look greasy."

Traditionally, marketing professionals would then march the brand out to the public through the use of print or broadcast advertising—utilizing actors, spokespeople, or clever copy to lock the brand into the consumer's consciousness. This might be done through humor; it might be done through a more serious approach—whatever worked with the brand and the image the client wanted to project. In any case, the message was delivered through the traditional media outlets appropriate to the campaign. Finally, the brand was then attached to as many products as possible.

The success of the traditional format is exemplified by our memories of jingles, commercials, and icons that remained long after the impression was made. In some cases, the slogan itself became part of the vernacular—"I can't believe I ate the whole thing" and "Where's the beef"—while the product itself was forgotten (Alka-Seltzer and Wendy's, respectively). Eventually, no matter how popular the slogan—or the product—the message became just another combination of words that meant nothing to a distant generation. Consider "Quick, Henry the Flit" or "Moxie." Nothing coming to mind? That's not a surprise.

Increased Challenges for Developing and Maintaining a Brand

The traditional marketing/advertising approach to brand-building has run into challenges as technology has expanded the media that can be utilized to promote a brand. Consumers are bombarded with over $160 billion in advertising spending1—in the form of over 3,000 messages per day. Brand messages can now be seen on shopping carts, grocery store floors, luggage carousels at airports, subway tunnel walls—and plastered all over the clothing worn by a major portion of the 18- to 34-year-old set. Additionally, an increasingly skeptical public, highly sensitized to advertising in any form, also presents a challenge to brand-building (although this supposed "skepticism" does raise a few questions in light of the clothing choices mentioned previously).

And then there's the competition. As the Big Boys seek new ways to extend their equity, names not previously associated with particular products appear and give old-timers (and young upstarts) a run for their money.

Consider Caterpillar, long known for heavy earth-moving equipment. Some genius decided to extend the brand to work clothing, and the next thing you know, Caterpillar workboots are giving Timberland fits. And the use of the Internet—the hot, new, rapid-response medium—gets the message out there faster than ever before. Sustained differentiation then becomes a difficult task and brand loyalty actually suffers. According to some surveys, only 43% of consumers report being brand loyal—down 11% in just two years.2

This difficulty in sustaining the brand message is coming at the same time that brands are taking on even more importance to consumers. Distrust of businesses, political figures, financial institutions, or job/financial security has left much of the public searching for touchstones they can believe in. At the same time, the traditional fulfillers of the touchstone role—churches, the state, the community—have fallen on hard times. The isolation of the modern world has taken a swipe at much of what older generations took for granted in creating and maintaining their own identities.3

This phenomenon has opened the door for some brands—those with strong, clear identities—to step into this gap in the belief system. These brands actually help consumers define themselves. In short, people have formed emotional attachments to brands, exemplifying a confidence that is transferred to the consumer as they take on the brand's identity, enhancing their self image: I wear, therefore I am. Savvy marketers can utilize this emotional attachment to extend the brand into seemingly unrelated products and services. After all, what does a mouse have to do with software? Before leaping to the obvious conclusion, consider one specific mouse—Mickey—and one specific product niche—interactive software for children. While one might not normally tie the Disney name to computers, the strong connection with children and family helps make the idea saleable—in a very big way. In short, the successful brand becomes an icon for the consumer, with greater meaning than just a product.

How does a brand build itself into a cultural icon at a time when getting a message to the consumer is increasingly difficult? How can marketers overcome the clutter and the me-tooism of the competition? Most important, how does the brand truly come alive for the consumer so that it becomes ingrained? The answer lies in bringing the brand to life so that consumers can connect with it, claim it as part of their lifestyle. To do this, marketers are finding that tying the brand to an entertainment-driven experience—one that creates a pleasant memory or educational offering—can be very successful in today's entertainment-oriented world. If this is accomplished successfully, these brands connect with the consumer as human—not just as product user.

This "experiential branding" takes the core values of the brand and introduces them into an actual environment—one that gives the visitor a visceral experience of what the brand means and offers. Experiential branding is the intersection of entertainment and marketing.

The concept first hit the retail side of branding with individual brands. Manufacturers such as Nike (with Niketown) have discovered the power of exhibiting their product in environments that include merchandising approaches combining museum-like exhibits, state-of-the-art audio-visual technology, online interfaces, and themed d_or to support—but not define or overpower—the brand image. While Niketown offers product for sale, it does not necessarily compete with other retail partners in the area that also offer their merchandise; instead, these hip facilities act as yet another marketing effort for local retailers, by promoting the brand image.

But, experiential branding has now moved outside the boundaries of the consumer arena, burrowing deeper into the brand psyche. The two most important manifestations of the trend are in corporate heritage centers and corporate attractions.

Mr. Brand, Meet Mr. Experience

Companies around the world have used an educational approach in rudimentary fashion through the traditional plant tour; however, today's marketers have extended that approach into what can best be described as a corporate theme park or attraction. These experiences are typically site-specific, which includes both "brick-and-mortar" destinations and special events; they may also join in "co-opetition" with other brands to provide mass and stimulate visitation.

According to Gregory Beck, AIA, a leading New York-based designer of brand attractions, these destinations—also referred to as "heritage centers"—"demonstrate the theme park-like benefits of engaging people by having them experience the brand story—a mantra that has recently sent many companies in search of their "roots." In developing these scripts, it is often not only about the products themselves, but the values that they represent. In other words, it's usually not about performance, but about the emotional attributes of a product or service. The brand character of Swatch watches, for example, is not about "time," and Nike's retail attractions are definitely not about sneakers. (The Swiss company speaks about "irreverence, passion, provocation," while Niketowns represent "assertive life/style theaters.") Both companies also sponsor Olympic and special-event pavilions noted for their clever environmental narrative.

These new attractions, created as high-touch sensory experiences, are often seen as the leading edge of a 'brand narrative' that speaks over many channels. Today, marketing strategies are designed as a sophisticated choir of environmental, online, print, and broadcast voices. As a result, corporate attractions are taking on additional significance, becoming virtual homes that can be revisited through the Internet, and a focal point for special events. Ultimately, they may be the only tangible expression of the brand itself.

"Our mission is to speak clearly across all of our brands, in unified voice, with clear brand channels," says George H. Ladyman, Jr., Vice President for AOL/Time Warner in New York. The recently merged AOL/Time Warner conglomerate has created a multi-venue branding challenge. "We are currently evaluating our physical brand presence worldwide, including a flagship attraction in our new headquarters building in Columbus Circle [Manhattan]. Our goal is to focus on the consumer in an informative, entertaining, and engaging way." Ladyman, former Vice President of Design for Six Flags Theme Parks and Managing Director of CUH2A Entertainment, oversees a guest venue network across all AOL/Time Warner properties, reflecting a new presence of attraction-based management in traditional media boardrooms. 4

Brand attractions also hold the promise for achieving a "sweet spot" among the four elements that define compelling guest experiences. As identified by authors B. Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, these attractions can entertain and educate while providing an esthetic and escapist experience.5 (In fact, Pine and Gilmore take the concept of experiential branding one step further, postulating that today, every business is a stage and every employee a cast member—a theory that has worked for Disney for years, and is now moving into the marketplace.) Combining all four of these elements results in powerful communication "place-events," which will theoretically rise above the 3000-messages-per-day clutter.

Case in Point: The Brand as Corporate Attraction—Cereal City

Up until a few years ago, young families could pack up the brood and show up on the doorstep of the local factory for a plant tour. For no charge, moms and dads could entertain and educate their children with everything from huge bulldozers to paper-making. Lumber mills, breweries, chocolate factories, auto plants, newspapers, and dairies all offered tours. Parents could pat themselves on the back for teaching their kids; kids walked out wide-eyed, with samples to take to show and tell.

Over the last 10 years, insurance, liability, and security issues have forced many of these businesses to get out of the tour business—at least within the walls of the actual plant. However, marketing professionals have not allowed the concept to disappear—far from it. Today's corporations are turning to new approaches that actually increase the brand experience, utilizing all the bells and whistles that today's technology can afford them. Such is the basis of Kellogg's Cereal City USA, a facility that snaps, crackles, and pops with entertainment.

Located in Battle Creek, Michigan, a town whose name lingers in the backs of those Baby-Boomer brains subjected to thousands of hours of Saturday morning cartoons, Kellogg's Cereal City USA is an excellent example of the successful melding of entertainment, education, and marketing. And, although the Kellogg's brand is certainly firmly implanted on the facility, the attraction possesses enough historical information to keep it from toppling into a "big commercial" feeling.

Unlike The World of Coca-Cola or Hershey's Chocolate World, Kellogg's Cereal City USA is not owned and operated by the company whose brand is featured. Instead, it is owned by a non-profit organization, the Heritage Center Foundation, organized five years ago to respond to the public's demand for a replacement for the Kellogg's plant tours closed in 1986.

The first bit of business facing the Foundation was the question of what the replacement venue should actually feature. While part of the population may think of corn flakes in conjunction with the words "Battle Creek," the city's cereal history is actually rooted in another long-ago attraction that once lured visitors from around the world, the Battle Creek Sanitarium. Owned and operated by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the sanitarium was a mecca for health enthusiasts of the late 19th to early 20th Centuries. The history of the facility, the town itself, and the health craze that fueled the growth of both entities are all-important parts of the overall story. So, with that in mind, the Heritage Center Foundation created an attraction that focuses on all of these factors, combining exhibits, theaters, interactive play areas, food, and retail into a treasure trove of stealth marketing.

This experiential branding effort mirrors the right brain-left brain differences between the two brothers who started the cereal craze. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg focused on nutrition and the importance of a healthy regimen; Will Keith Kellogg tirelessly promoted the brand, creating new marketing techniques that incorporated psychology and entertainment, changing the course of PR and advertising. From the silo-themed glockenspiel, featuring hourly performances by an animatronic Tony the Tiger, Snap! Crackle! and Pop!, and Toucan Sam, to the three major themed areas and numerous interactive and educational exhibits and theaters, Kellogg's Cereal City USA combines the seriousness of Dr. John with the whiz-bang marketing of Will Keith.

An Historical Perspective

A key element of Kellogg's Cereal City USA is the Historical Timeline, told through a series of museum-quality interactive exhibits and a theatrical presentation, The Cereal Bowl of America. Guests are presented with an overview of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a health resort operated by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, and featuring a vegetarian diet that focused on grain-based foods. An accident in the kitchen led to the discovery of corn flakes, and soon this new cereal product was all the rage. Considering that up to this point, Americans typically started their mornings off with heavy, fat-based foods, corn flakes quickly found not only a following, but also a very competitive marketplace. Not long after the initial success of Kellogg's product, a former visitor to the sanitarium, C. W. Post, started his own cereal business in Battle Creek, followed by scores of other suppliers; this led to the sobriquet "Cereal City." Presented in a richly themed theater, The Cereal Bowl of America tells this tale through the eyes of a Battle Creek historian named Duff.

But, Kellogg's did more than change the eating habits of the country. Another innovative theater experience, A Bowl Full of Dreams, tells the story of Will Keith "W.K." Kellogg, an early marketing genius. W.K. introduced his product to the public through the use of methods that are now considered basic principles of marketing. He was one of the first to use premiums to sell the product, either through "send in the boxtop" promotions or by including prizes in the cereal box itself. A philanthropist as well as promoter, W.K. demanded that the premiums placed in cereal boxes during the Depression be something of value to children during a time when money for luxuries was scarce. Kellogg also introduced the idea of using "civic spokespeople," or celebrities, to push the product, including Wild Bill Hickock, Andy Devine, Captain Kangaroo, and Superman. In fact, Kellogg's promotion of his product followed the arc of entertainment, from radio, to TV (especially during Saturday morning cartoons), and now to an experiential branding center, Kellogg's Cereal City USA itself.

Finally, keeping up with entertainment trends, The Best to You Revue ties the history of the town, the industry, and the star itself, cereal, together. Audience members are "transformed" to the size of a salt shaker on the breakfast table of a Michigan farmhouse and are told the whole entertaining tale through the use of oversized props, animation, and familiar Kellogg's characters.

Having been introduced to the background of the town and the company, guests can take a "tour" through the second of the three major themed areas, the Cereal Production Line. Taking the place of the popular factory tours discontinued in 1986, this production line provides guests with a look at every aspect of cereal production. In a video tour led by "Mr. Grit," guests see the control room, the cooking room, the flaking rolls, the toasting ovens, and the packaging area. The area includes the sounds and smells of the real thing. To complete the overall experience, guests are provided with a warm serving of corn flakes.

A Grain of Fun

Once their curiosity and senses have been satisfied, guests may then move on to the interactive heart of the attraction: Cereal City. The third of the three major themed areas, Cereal City is where active experience takes the place of the more passive theatrical revues. Described as an "exploratorium," Cereal City offers a variety of experiences for guests of all ages, including:

  • Dig 'Em's Diner, a trivia-based computer game focusing on the nutrition of cereal

  • The Digestive Fun House, where guests can use interactive exhibits to learn about the digestive system, complete with sound and light

  • A sketch and color area that allows guests to experience first-hand how cereal characters are developed

  • Tony and Tony Jr.'s Table Top Hop, where kids slide from a giant cereal box into oversized soft Froot Loops and up and over nets surrounded by a huge milk carton A "meet and greet" area for Tony the Tiger, Cereal City's official mascot

Since Kellogg's Cereal City USA estimates the typical length of stay to be two-and-one-half to three hours, the facility also contains a food and beverage area to serve the needs of hungry guests. The 115-seat Red Onion Grill provides a variety of lunch and dinner choices, including deli sandwiches, pizza, burgers, and salads, and features an extensive cereal premium collection exhibit. Modeled after a diner of the early 20th Century, the Red Onion Grill gets its name from a diner that was located near the Battle Creek Sanitarium.

Additional Revenue Streams

Finally, guests are directed to the last stop for any present-day experience—the factory store. This retail venue offers Cereal City USA and Kellogg's character merchandise, from Kellogg's Cereal City USA jackets and tee-shirts, to Tony the Tiger stuffed animals and keychains, to a variety of souvenirs with Kellogg's character likenesses. Kellogg's Cereal City USA also offers its interactive experience for special events after hours. Catered receptions, including Tony the Tiger as host, can be held in the atrium of the facility. The entire facility, including the exhibits and theaters, is also available to private groups. Additionally, the facility is available for a range of other events, including organizational meetings, group outings, company picnics, and birthday parties.

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