There are pop-up shops designed by businesses to surprise and delight, and then there are incredibly thoughtful and immersive experiences shaped by brand stories. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve had a tech giant serve me dessert, seen a TV show become a clothing store and had a colonial company that once owned my country offer me some tea.
I would never think of connecting those corporations with these actions, but they’ve won me over precisely because the encounters were so unexpected.
Google claims that the Home Mini – its smart speaker assistant competing with Amazon’s Alexa – is roughly the same size and shape as a donut. Using this delicious insight, the company decided to host a Google Home Mini Donut Shop next to Jane’s Carousel in the DUMBO area of Brooklyn. On a random basis, visitors would win either one of two things: a Google Home Mini or two donuts from New York’s Doughnut Plant. I was willing to take those odds.
On the first day – yes, I went more than once – I waited in line with my friends for two hours. The next day I waited for another two. While this sounds painful, we were all chatty women with a beautiful, panoramic view of the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges to keep us company.
The event managers wore cute white aprons and the building itself looked like fondant icing brought to life. Shades of millennial pink adorned the ‘grammable photo ops. As I stepped inside my tastefully decorated booth, I was told to ask the Home Mini a question. After she responded, the maze-like conveyor belts running behind the counter dispensed a package that looked uncannily like a Happy Meal box (intentionally designed, I’m sure).
Unfortunately, I got donuts while both my friends got devices. I was determined to collect a device the second time around. But as cruel fate would have it, I got donuts again. Well, at least they tasted good, albeit a bit like defeat.
The Google Home Mini sells for a mere $50, so I realize I could have just walked into a Best Buy and gone home with one along with three hours of free time to spare. But that is the power of a magnetic brand experience. I couldn’t care less about buying a Google Home Mini; I wanted to WIN one.
Topshop’s flagship store on Oxford Street in London hijacked pop culture and hosted on its premises a replica of the fictional world from Stranger Things.
A capsule collection of ‘80s-inspired T-shirts and lunchboxes was, of course, the center of attraction, but Topshop elevated the Stranger Things universe to a cult-like level.
The store’s main windows featured the Byers’ living room on one side and a Hawkins Lab room on the other, where a Dr. Brenner impersonator encouraged passersby to use their telekinetic powers on a Coke can. The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” played through a cassette player inside Castle Byers. And a recreated “Upside Down” spanned the arcade, complete with Space Invaders and root rot. My favorite: A wall full of lockers from the corridor of Hawkins High, one storing Jonathan’s camera equipment and the other featuring a shrine to Barb.
I wanted to save the best for last. This brand story goes back more than 400 years, when merchants from Great Britain set sail for India to procure spices, teas and other exotic paraphernalia. The company they established on Indian soil ultimately began to control parts of the subcontinent with its own armed forces and currency bearing its coat of arms. The founders called it the East India Company. An Indian rebellion in 1857 attempted to overthrow this colonial government and failed, but it helped lead to the company’s dissolution less than 20 years later. One of the most powerful brands of its time was reduced to a small tea and coffee trading concern.
For nearly 150 years the East India Company was relegated to the history books. Then, Indian-born British entrepreneur Sanjiv Mehta took notice and, over the span of a decade, bought all the rights to its name and trademark. In 2005, he relaunched the brand as a luxury shop in London selling British Era-inspired products ranging from tea and biscuits to gold coins and books.
For Mehta and others like him, the historic company always stood for brutality and disgrace. The new and completely transformed East India Company was a way of finishing what those rebellious soldiers began in the summer of 1857. The exquisite biscuit tins, marble countertops engraved with vintage coins, and window sign that reads “Forever Exploring: Every Ingredient Tells A Story” all communicate one idea: the negative had become a positive.
Walking under the royal chandeliers and running my hand over the velvet displays, I was awash with a strange pride and ownership. The pain and hard work of my once-colonized ancestors filled the air. Standing in that store was more than an experience. It was a feeling. I find myself agreeing more and more with Mehta when he says: “The historic East India Company built itself on aggression, but today’s East India Company is about compassion. It belongs to the entire Commonwealth of nations, to millions of people around the world. It is part of our shared history.”
And that, is how branding is done.
This fall at ThoughtMatter, we’re ending every week with a “Get Out Fridays” discussion. During each session, a different studio member will tell us about a recent event they went to that has inspired them, and can in turn inspire each of us here at ThoughtMatter. It can be any event—as long as it involves getting out of the office and thinking in a different space.