The importance of the physical or tangible aspect of the customer’s experience is something very few will argue against. This importance is clearly seen in the oft-quoted RATER Model of Service Quality where the “T” stands for Tangibility.Reliability, Assurance, Empathy, and Responsiveness are the other elements that make up the five main service dimensions used by customers to evaluate a business’ service quality.
No matter how great an intangible aspect of a service experience turns out to be, it is only natural that the customer will still be affected by what can be seen, touched, smelled or felt. A great smile does wonders for the experience but it will have a limited effect if the customer reception area is filthy.
A knowledgeable customer service employee is an important prerequisite for great customer service. However, customers might not be too impressed if the ambience in the customer experience space is not comfortable. Showing empathy is an important part of the customer’s experience. Nevertheless, the customer will still not rate the experience very high if the furniture at the front office are not comfortable.
As a matter of fact, there are customers who are so fastidious that they might not return to the business for something as seemingly insignificant as a piece of paper on the floor. There are customers who are turned off by a small stain on the attire of the customer service employee or even a missing button on a shirt. That is a clear evidence of the importance of the tangible elements of the customer’s experience.
Smart companies know this, so they go to various lengths to ensure that the servicescape communicates the right message to customer. These organisations ensure that the physical environment communicates a clear message—a message that indeed customers are very important and that the organisation would spare no expense in making its customers feel comfortable.
Beyond providing customers with a comfortable welcome, however, the physical space can also serve another important objective. The servicescape can also provide an opportunity for the organisation to communicates its brand identity to the outside world. It is important to note that every brand has an identity. A brand’s identity is the intention the organisation has, for how it wants to be perceived by its target audience. The brand identity must be differentiated from the brand image. The latter is what the outside world perceives the organisation to be.
In communicating its brand identity or intention to the outside world, the physical space provides a great opportunity for the organisation. For some organisations, the physical space is such an important tool for communicating the brand’s identity that they take the idea a step further. This is what leads to the phenomenon of Branded Spaces.
A branded space is, by definition, is a location where customers interact with a brand. A branded space, in essence, provides an opportunity for customers to have a multi-sensual experience with the brand. Within a branded space, the customer can touch, taste and feel the brand. It is believed that by physically interacting with the brand in a very personalised way, the customer would become much more connected to the brand. With a greater connection comes a stronger commitment and loyalty to the brand, leading to the customer becoming a strong advocate.
Some have argued that every physical or even virtual location of the organisation is a branded space. This is true to a large extent. A space with no brand elements still communicates to customers so it can be said to be branded. In other words, whether a business consciously brands its space of not is immaterial. The space brands itself.
However, there are firms that set up specific places where customers can have interactions with the brand in a truly unique way. That place, specially reserved to be the physical embodiment of the brand, qualifies a branded space. A branded space can therefore be set up either within the premises of the organisation or could be set up someplace else. Shopping malls and other places that receive much visitors are mostly used for out-of-office branded places.
The use of branded spaces is another form of experiential or engagement marketing. As the name implies, experiential marketing is a marketing strategy that is participatory in nature. Customers get to interact with the organisation or the brand in a real-world scenario.
US-based, women-focused, media and entertainment website, Refinery29 produces an annual event dubbed “29 ROOMS”. The website, teams up with various organisations and individuals such as artists, musicians, etc. to convert warehouses and other large open spaces into 29 rooms where customers can experience various aspects of the company’s offerings. For instance, there was a room created with a number of punching bags hanging from the roof. However, those were not just any ordinary punching bags. Every punch on these bags releases a different sound. Several people punching different bags at different intervals ends up producing a great symphony.
Another exciting example of a branded space doubling as an experiential marketing was by frozen foods brand, Lean Cuisine. The brand turned a wall in New York’s Grand Central Station into a gallery of weighing scales. However, rather than showing the weights in kg or lbs, the scales showed achievements of women. For instance, there were scales with inscriptions such as “Feeding People in Need”, “Publishing 5 Books”, “Surviving Brain Surgery”, “Being an Independent Woman”, etc.
The essence of the #WeighThis Campaign was to show women that there were other equally things besides having a perfect body or having an ideal weight. What made this project even more exciting was the fact that Lean Cuisine, as a brand, was originally focused on weight loss as one of its main marketing messages. However, with the branded space cum experiential marketing, Lean Cuisine was able to communicate to its customers that it truly cared about them.
Branded spaces can be differentiated along the lines of customer involvement and sales focus. There are spaces with low customer involvement and low sales focus. Such a branded space looks more like a museum because patrons do not get to physically interact with the brand too much while the organisation also does not set up the place to sell anything. The objective of such a place is just to keep the brand alive in the minds of customers.
Another type of branded space is one with low customer involvement but the organisation still intends to make sales. This is actually the case with the typical shops around the world. Customers are not expected to touch the product too much or to try out the product before making any purchase. In a typical shop, a customer comes in with a certain expectation in mind. When the customer sees what he or she wants and can afford it, a purchase is made and the customer leaves.
The third type of branded space is one with high customer involvement but with low sales intentions. In this instance, customers can interact with the brand as much as they want. Customers can use the latest technologies to simulate the real-life experiences. However, since the intention is not to make sales at that particular place, customers can make their purchases either at another location or even online.
The final type of branded space is the one with high customer involvement and high sales intentions. In these branded spaces, customers get to interact with the products and can go home with the products, if they so wish. Since 2001, when it opened its first store to the general public, Apple has been one of those organisations that has been very consistent with ensuring that its shops are more than just shopping destinations. Apple shops have always been places were customers could familiarise themselves with the Apple brand through its exciting products.
It is true that the examples of branded spaces used thus far might seem out of the budget of many businesses. That is understandable. However, being out of the budget does not necessarily mean out of the creativity. With a little thinking, any business, regardless of its financial might, can create a great branded space for its cherished customers.
Experts advise that the first thing needed in creating a branded space is for the brand or organisation to have a clear vision of what it stands for. A branded space is supposed to be a physical manifestation of what the company is all about. A brand that projects fun must not have a branded space that communicates a sombre mood. That is unless the creative designer is employing the element of contradiction as a communication mechanism. A brand that has managed to create a fun branded space is the French cosmetic brand Sephora. Sephora shops are designed to stress on playing around with makeup to see which one looks good for the customer.
Beyond getting grounded on what the brand stands for, it is important that the business looks for the most-effective way by which it can communicate to its customers. For instance, even a wall in the office can be used to communicate the brand’s identity to its target. On a shoe-string budget, any small business can set up a branded space. All that is needed is for the business to, first of all, see its space as more than just a location but as an opportunity to properly engage with customers in a meaningful way. With that kind of mind-set, it would be very easy for the business to generate the ideas to bring its brand to life.
With the level of competition facing many organisations in almost all industries and sectors, any advantage—no matter how small—counts. Brands that are aware of this fact are always on the lookout for something that would make that difference. The concept of a branded space is one such seemingly little idea that can make a massive difference to the customer’s experience.