What are Branded Environments?
When one steps into a Starbucks, they almost instantly know they are in the famed coffeehouse, and not at a McDonald’s. Apart from the uniformed staff and a giant sign at the door, there are countless other factors that make a Starbucks look like a Starbucks. Textures, materials, shapes, colors, layouts, furniture, and lighting all contribute to the experience of being in a branded environment. These elements are replicated globally to create an identifiable image. As economic patterns change, brands are looking at extending their identities into spatial experiences in order to better engage with their customers in their daily lives.
Brands are everywhere. People are in constant interaction with brands and forming opinions about them – from the toothpaste, one uses every morning to the mattress one sleeps on at night. This omnipresence is reinforced with messaging and advertisements both online and offline. Brands are on a mission to attract, entice and engage with people, aiming to convert them into loyal customers. By physically interacting with the company in a personalized way, it is believed that the customer would connect better with the brand and become a strong advocate of it.
A branded environment is a space designed to host brand activities or interactions with customers. They might take the shape of a retail store, a pop-up shop, a workplace, a service center, or an experience center. The space provides an opportunity for the brand to express its values through physical touchpoints that people can immersively interact with. Physical spaces allow for a multi-sensory experience of the brand through visuals, scent, touch, and taste. Encountering the brand firsthand encourages customers to increase their involvement in the evolution of the brand. Such staged experiences convert any location into an opportunity for marketing in an approachable and customer-centric way.
Creating a branded space requires more than incorporating the company’s primary colors in the space or displaying its logo. The design process usually begins with understanding the brand’s mission and purpose, which are then translated into a spatial identity. Physical space is used as a canvas for storytelling, aiming to foster an emotional connection with the customer. Through visual elements and spatial layouts, brand values can strategically be transmitted to create a unique and replicable spatial language.
Branded environments are physical manifestations of brand values. For Nike, this might look like a performance, for Aesop, utilitarian luxury, and learning for Apple. Since its first outlet in 2001, Apple has been consistent with ensuring that its retail spaces are more than shopping destinations. Apple stores are crafted experiences where customers can be familiarized and educated on their exciting products. Reinforcing face-to-face relationships and trust between customers and the brand, Apple retail centers prioritize interaction through assisted shopping and cultural activities. Products are displayed on tables to be easily accessed and tested by visitors. Mid-height furniture clusters in an open plan allow for visual orientation in the large space, envisioning customers within a larger “Apple community”.
The skincare brand Aesop uses interior design as a powerful marketing device to magnetize its ideal customers. Aesop’s beautiful retail experiences are designed to reflect the identity of their locations, each of their international outlets differing from the other. What remains constant is a spatial representation of their values – ‘efficacy’ and ‘sensual pleasure’. Expressing these ideas, a central basin allows visitors to experience the product in a sensory environment. At every entrance of an Aesop store are product testers that allow visitors to try the product without entering the establishment. The design of the store enables the products to speak for themselves.
The Experience Economy
As cultures evolve and economies shift, human civilization finds itself in an era of augmented wants and needs. We are currently at the onset of an “experience economy” where brands are moving beyond selling products and services, and towards offering experiences. Branded spaces extend themselves into experiential marketing – a marketing strategy that is participatory in nature. They become hosts for designed interactions that share brand narratives, creating memorable experiences and guiding behaviors. The experiences integrate the sensations and feelings that a company strategically generates, thereby enforcing positive memories in the minds of customers. Spatial design becomes crucial in this economic shift as experiences are rooted in embodied space.
The intersection between technological and tangible touchpoints is ripe with opportunities for innovative customer experiences. Branded experiences may be designed for physical and digital spaces, as well as a combination. As the distinction between digital and non-digital experiences continues to dissolve, brands can design phygital spaces that interact with customers online and offline lives. As the metaverse develops, brands will need to establish their presence in multiple spatial platforms.
The use of architecture as a communication device to meet marketing objectives shows immense potential. Spatial experiences can serve as a medium for personalized interaction between brands and their patrons. Branded environments can be seen as community-centric spaces where brands and customers connect over shared values. Today, people are no longer mere consumers of products but of sensations and lifestyles. Brands need to evolve along with people’s desires to create playgrounds for groundbreaking human experiences.