By now, most of us get the message—we need to consider the entire customer journey, the complete experience, surrounding the products and services we offer to customers. But in this frenetic, multitasking, app-happy society, how do you prepare people to pay attention in the first place, let alone get actively involved in your carefully planned customer journey?
As brands aspire to create deeper connections with an endlessly distracted consumer, storytelling in design has become ever more crucial. And to get it right, we might as well borrow (i.e., steal) ideas from those who know best—our friends in show business. How do great plays and movies prepare their audiences for their stories? How do they prime us all to be engaged regardless of what mood we are in? It’s simple: with an overture. Great brand experiences do exactly the same thing.
Though relatively rare now, overtures were common during the glory days of Broadway musicals, when shows like West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and The King and I were the primary source of pop music singles and mainstream movie adaptations. In fact, you can tell how old most theatrical soundtracks are without looking at the title. If the first track is an overture, the show is probably of pre-1970 vintage.
Overtures include brief phrases of the songs that will be performed in the show, but they’re more involved than the 30-second song samples on iTunes before buying an album (or just one song, you miserable little album-killing kids). An overture is a carefully considered, coherent piece of music on its own, with skillfully designed changes in tempo and key that foreshadow the tone, mood, and structure of the story about to be performed. The result is a more powerful and compelling overall experience, because the audience is primed for it. That approach has applications well beyond musical theater.
In the movie world, great opening scenes perform the same function as musical overtures. The opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark is a great example. It’s a 13-minute masterpiece of storytelling, despite the fact that what happens is completely independent of the actual storyline of the rest of the film. However, the scripted storyline is really not what the movie is about.
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas conceived the movie as an homage to the cliffhanger B-movie serials of their youth. Their love of those movies is what this movie is about, and that’s what is communicated, with a bare minimum of dialogue, in the opening sequence. However, in order to succeed commercially, the movie needed to appeal to a much wider audience than the relative handful that would get all the sly references to the serial genres sprinkled throughout the film.
The opening sequence functions as an overture that funnels a broad audience through a narrowly defined, intense tunnel of experience, training them on the rules of this particular world, and then expands again into the main thread of the actual storyline. Once the entire audience has been on that wonderful opening ride, they are all on the same thematic page, no matter how they entered the theater. That’s the goal we should all aim for as designers of brand experiences.
More recently, another fantastic opening sequence can be found in The Social Network, David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant 2010 dramatization of the story behind the rise of Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg.
Again, there’s a key difference between what is depicted, and what the movie is about. Software development and intellectual property lawsuits are not exactly slam-dunk blockbuster material. The opening sequence deftly depicts what really is compelling: How a brilliant, yet socially inept teenager can be both ignorant of and insightful about the nature of popularity, and how powerful that combination can be. It’s also about the hyperactive pace of everything in our digitally driven culture, and how loneliness and socializing inhabit the same emotional space. All of those themes are baked into that opening sequence, and by the time the title credits start, the audience both recoils from and feels pity for Zuckerberg’s character. A nifty trick.
There are effective overtures at work outside the realm of entertainment, too. Consider the value proposition and experience of shopping at IKEA. On paper, this brand experience is a recipe for retail disaster. There are no salespeople to help you, the furniture is unassembled and in several different packages, all of which you must pull out of the warehouse yourself, haul home in your own vehicle, and then figure out how to assemble. These quirks actually support what the brand is really about: inexpensive, functional, and clever furniture that will do the job for you until you can afford something better.
This message is delivered via the "overture" to the IKEA experience: the process of entering the store. At the front door, there are paper tape measures, shopping lists, and pencils. What’s the message? You are going to be doing most of the work here yourself, and there’s so much stuff to see, you’re going to need to take notes. Oh, and put your kids in the play area, because this is going to take a while.
Then you are given a big yellow shopping bag. Wait, a shopping bag? For furniture? Yes, because before you get to the furniture, there’s some kind of small, cute or clever item, for an incredibly low price. Maybe 100 tea-light candles for $5, or six picture frames for $10. Put it in your bag, and 20 feet inside the front door, you’ve already participated in the essence of IKEA: cheap, odd, clever, and fun. Now the rest of the store makes more sense.
Similarly, fast-food connoisseurs in the United States rhapsodize over the burgers at In-N-Out, the regional burger chain in the Western states. Here, too, the overture is an important part of the experience. Because In-N-Out makes everything on the spot from fresh ingredients, they’re anything but fast. But while you wait for your food, there are plenty of clues to provide a rationale for that wait.
First, the entire kitchen is open to view, inviting you to watch the hustle of all those neatly dressed people making the food. The message: We’ve got nothing to hide. Unlike at other fast-food chains, watching your order being assembled doesn’t ruin your appetite. In fact, it’s great fun to watch the manual potato-slicing machine chop potatoes for the fries. The message: Holy smokes, this food is fresh. And since In-N-Out pays their crews more than minimum wage, the employees behave like they actually want to work there, making them a noticeably cheerful lot. Put it all together, and by the time your order is ready, you want it, and you want it bad. That has a major impact on how good it tastes.
Sometimes, however, the preamble to an experience has to accommodate some very difficult, negative realities. Take the freshly renovated Terminal 2 at San Francisco International Airport, the new home of Virgin America and American Airlines. Here, the terminal’s architects, Gensler, took an approach to the design that indicates a tacit understanding that air travel in the new millennium includes anxiety, inconvenience, and submission to authority. The functional design elements make the process of getting from curb to gate as smooth as possible, but the extra touches provide a sense of optimism that despite all the problems, air travel is still pretty cool.
From lighting fixtures that evoke weightless aircraft wings to flowing sculptural artwork in the spaces between the security and gate areas, the design strives to restore some of the wonder and freedom associated with flying, even in the context of an experience that has become fraught with stress.
Not all of the details are obvious in a single visit, which makes sense for an environment that will be experienced repeatedly by its customers. Just like travel itself, traveling through the terminal will never be exactly the same twice. Giving the customer a smoother transition to the flight, with a good combination of familiarity and discovery, is a worthy goal for the design of a public space.
Looking across these different examples, we can derive a few guidelines for creating an effective overture for any brand experience, for designing the experience before the experience.
Your audience will learn more about your story by experiencing it directly, not by being told about it. Narration is usually an indicator of laziness on the part of the author. Could you do away with the "About Us" section of your website and still have everyone understand your story?
This is the most important thing to figure out, and also the most difficult. It’s similar to the difference between your product and your brand. The product is what your company sells, but the brand is what your company is about. You must know this inside and out in order to encapsulate the brand and communicate it effectively from the beginning.
Involve people on their terms, not yours. Put yourself in your target audience’s shoes, and develop the best understanding you can about what they do and do not understand about your product and category.
Acknowledge what’s difficult for the customer in the experience you provide. If it’s a necessary evil, present it as evidence of what makes it worth the trouble.
Not everyone starts with the same level of understanding about your category or your product. Try to educate the newcomers while respecting the regulars.
Level-setting cues become part of the ritual of anticipation for your repeat customers. Add little details that the casual customer would likely overlook. Don’t worry; your best customers will notice.
So think about it: How are you introducing a potential customer to your brand experience? How can you make that process rewarding on its own? If you couldn’t use words, how would you depict it? Rent Raiders of the Lost Ark again, and let me know what you think.
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