On the 9th of November we welcomed a panel to Airbnb to discuss the role of physicality in creating memorable brand experiences.
On 9th November, we to took the London workspace of Airbnb to discuss the role of physicality in creating memorable brand experiences. We explored why users are warming to brands that can bring value to their lives through physicality, community and contact with others.
As a topic, it’s one we’ve touched upon at different events in the past — whether that’s the relevance of physical retail in the face of ‘pure play’ digital retailers, or how process and material decisions inform the best approaches to standout packaging.
Perhaps the rampant presence of digital technology, social channels and screen-based experiences are creating easier ‘value adds’ when it comes to what can only be achieved in-person. As we learned at our recent roundtable on mixed reality, some of the richest moments for retailers are when technology is used to add another layer to what’s ‘real’.
So to continue to explore and unpack these ideas, challenges and opportunities, we welcomed an eclectic mix of panellists with lessons to share from their own businesses, practices and recent experiences. Our speakers included:
Ben Kendall, UK Brand Marketing Manager at Airbnb. At Airbnb Ben spearheaded company expansion, particularly in European markets through an approach that incorporates authentic user-generated stories, a focus on environment and bringing people together in rich and memorable ways. Previously he was the Head of EMEA Marketing at Vita Coco, where he lead international marketing plans that established Vita Coco as a market leader.
Russell Potter, Director of SODA, an award-winning studio of architects and designers. Russell has worked on prestigious projects in and around central London, building a reputation for sensitively integrating contemporary architecture within the context of delicate existing buildings, including the Grade II* listed 76 Dean Street, and the ongoing redevelopment of Walker's Court and Ilona Rose House. Russell is diversifying the studio’s offering to offer brand identity that’s rooted in the ‘foundations’ of a building, and believing that even the most digital decisions are informed by physical forces.
Sam Bompas, Co-Founder of Bompas & Parr, the globally recognised multi-sensory experience experts. The studio first came to prominence through its expertise in architectural jelly making, but has since gone on to work with some of the world’s leading architects, companies and cultural institutions, including Lord Foster, Mercedes-Benz and Kew Gardens. Sam also lectures internationally, and has delivered talks to companies such as Google and Diageo, on topics ranging from consumer journeys, visitor experiences to multi-sensory design.
Here’s what we learned.
Bompas & Parr projects always follow some sort of narrative drive, because in the absence of a story participants can quickly lose interest.
This extends into the way they pitch projects to clients. Rather than starting with the question of “What will it look like?” or “What will it smell like?”, they start with concept worlds and fill in the sensory details from there. As such, with their ‘Beyond the Waterfall’ underwater experience at Westfield London, they began looking into narratives belonging to mermen who have appeared in literature – mythology, fairytales and science fiction – and then used stories to guide the setting and cocktails, so the escapism was grounded in the real.
For Ben, Airbnb’s core aim is making people to feel that they ‘belong everywhere’, and for that to truly translate, real stories are the key to driving the message, alongside engagement through peer-to-peer reviewing. For this reason, they regularly create video and written content on hosts around the world, user stories, and curated travel itineraries.
Ben then highlighed that Airbnb also work to make imaginative experiences work in real time, for example with their ‘Night At’ events where iconic spaces are transformed into homes for just one night, offering users the sleepover of dreams. Previous locations have included Dracula’s Castle in Transylvania and Abbey Road Studios in London, with each place appearing as a standard listing that’s accessible in the usual way from their website. Ben cited this as a great way for users to get to grips with Airbnb; it’s an imaginative way into the brand, and creates valuable content based on a real experience.
“Experiences are now stronger because of digital” he added, with nostalgia and offline experience becoming all the more potent with the increased way experiences are shared online to represent identity and taste. People want more than ever to have new, interesting and unique experiences to show people, and for Airbnb the focus is on making them part of enabling that rather than just being a practical tool.
At SODA Studio, Russell said the consideration of materiality plays a part in everything from the process of modelling and prototyping material, to the tactility of brand ephemera. “Part of creating an engaging experience is focusing on details”, he said, reasoning that like Airbnb and Bompas & Parr, each project is unique and not about applying a house style.
Being playful with materials is key, for example on a current design for a theatre in Soho, they’ve been firing oxide into steel to create a subtle shimmery gold effect that fully feeds into the theatre’s branding. Whilst simplicity is always key, stripping back isn’t about leaving blank open spaces and surface. Texture is integral to adding dimensionality, and keeping in mind the space for a brand to evolve in the future.
In another project for Sweet Dram, a nomadic distillery, the brand’s ethos of temporarily collaborating with distilleries around the world informed their permanent home in east London, with movable elements and convertible furniture. Details of the joinery and copper elements derive from the copper finishes of the liquor labels, creating a cohesive space where usefulness is synonymous with decoration.
Experience is all about people, from those helping run and share experiential Bompas & Parr events, to Airbnb hosts welcoming new guests. Physicality also plays a part in enabling those on the ground to feel excited and inspired so as to have more memorable interactions that spread positive brand awareness. Sam particularly cited their ‘Hypnotic Shop’ installation, where they worked with experts on subliminal hypnotic visual techniques to make people buy more from a designer shop. He puts the increase in sales as mostly down to the fact the initiative gave staff something to discuss; it was a change that enabled them to intuitively engage with customers all on the same wavelength.
Reflecting on Airbnb, Ben said in lieu of having a core product which they have a say in, to enable a positive experience for users they empower hosts to also have a good experience. Through host meet up sessions and their online ‘Community Centre’ where ways to improve are shared, people are inspired to use the Airbnb experience as a way to learn about destinations, and develop long lasting relationships. The benefits are twofold for hosts and guests, going beyond payment and utility. The pared-back website enhances this through immediately asking users to search and “try” where they want to go, giving them the autonomy.
With the influx of new technology surrounding virtual, augmented and mixed reality, there’s the opportunity to explore physicality on an unprecedented level. Russell talked about VR being an indispensable tool for SODA’s practice, particularly for selling a space and giving stakeholders an idea of what a building will look and feel like.
Sam continued, spotlighting mixed reality technology – where what you really see is combined with virtual projections – discussing how it could eventually be a powerful way to enhance performances, rather than override them. However the speakers all agreed that with reality tech, there may be a while to go until it becomes less of a ‘gimmick’ and more fit for use.
40 Compton Street,
London, EC1V 0BD,
Start:8th November, 2017 at 6:30pm
End:8th November, 2017 at 8:30pm