The importance of creating meaning, as well as experiences

Jan 18, 2017

SVP for Global Innovation James Mullan picks out his favourite talk at this year’s NRF BIG Show in New York, and reflects on its implications for brands and retailers 

We’ve naturally spoken a lot about GDR’s involvement at the NRF this week, but the scale and prestige of the event also meant we were provided with a welcome opportunity to absorb the thoughts of some other retail experts from around the globe as well.

One talk that struck a chord for me, conscious of a recent renaissance of questions about experiential retail from many of our clients (particularly the design teams), was Kevin Kelley’s session on ‘The Bonfire Effect’.

Kelley is one of the founding partners of strategy-and-design practice, Shook Kelley, whose clients vary from butch, iconic brands, such as Harley Davidson, to a number of farm-friendly grocers playing in the fast-growing ‘fresh’ sector that’s already taking much of America by storm.

In every case, Kelley was quick to emphasise the importance of celebrating the communities that lie at the heart of any of the brands they do work with, reminiscing nostalgically about his own experiences around the bonfire in the marshes of Florida where he grew up.

“People like totems around which they can convene,” he explained. “These will often be physical but are increasingly also emotional – centred around a belief or a shared set of values they can really get behind.”

This chimed with me because it speaks to a deeper mission than simply ‘creating an experience’. For him, generating great experiences means generating a shared mindset amongst a brand’s audience – one that they instantly understand without needing a manual.

“Humans are not only experience-seeking. They are meaning-seeking,” said Kelley. “And so retail has to move to become more participatory, rather than simply transactional.”

Like bonfires, Kelley argued that the best experiences are built from assembling your audience around shared values and a purpose – united in a sense of community – where consumers explore, meander, learn and interact as they please.

He invited Stacey Griffith, SoulCycle’s second ever employee, on to the stage and she explained how they had turned simple spinning classes into something much more – a tribal experience where the collective synchronicity of those that attend raises everyone’s game and ensures its almost cult-like status.

In short, it was a powerful reminder that the really successful brands create a shared state of mind within their consumers. This becomes something they can unite behind as a group, which is often arguably far more important even than the actual products they are selling.

The meaning is the differentiator. And thus, given the fascinating and often lengthy conversations we’ve been having with our clients recently about defining more clearly for consumers just what each individual brand truly stands for, it was yet another compelling argument for us to develop bolder, clearer ideas about the convictions at the very heart of the DNA of each of our companies.

This will be key for ensuring continued relevance amongst the millennials and Gen-Z consumers of the future.

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