My fondest memory of taking the family to Disney World is of eavesdropping on an exhausted couple and their glazed-over children in a desolate parking lot, arguing about whether they’d left their car in the Pluto section or the Goofy section. Not that I wasn’t sympathetic. A day in the Magic Kingdom can do that to you. “Here, age relives fond memories of the past,” Walt had enthused when his first theme park opened in 1955, “and youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future.” But you can get so disoriented by all that happiness that you forget where you parked. Or that you’re in the presence of branding genius.
I think of that happy place often, lately, as more brands attempt to manifest themselves in physical space. It’s not a new urge, of course; brands like Lego and Heineken made landmarks of theirs. The first Niketowns in the ’90s were practically religious experiences before they devolved into mere stores. Ralph Lauren invented a completely fictitious America as a canvas for his brand, even if its genteel existence was confined to magazine ads. Even digital-native brands like Amazon and Warby Parker are dipping their toes in this water. Then there’s Samsung, which went all-in this year when it opened its concept store—called simply “837”—in New York’s Meat Packing District, a gleaming upthrust middle finger in the general direction of Apple.
It would be easy to dismiss these places as monuments to corporate vanity but, as with Disney, there is often real brilliance in it for those companies that can afford the ante. As concepts, brands are playing a defensive game these days. Stretched across more marketing platforms, they’re more vulnerable to mutation than ever. The increasingly tactical focus of marketing means less gets invested in the luxury of storytelling. And, for better or for worse, consumers themselves are playing an ever-more-active role in deciding what a brand means. Build a church for your brand, and suddenly that meaning isn’t quite so up for grabs anymore.
Without a doubt, taking back control of a brand’s narrative is the most compelling reason to spend the money. Samsung may not have used those words, but it is significant that they chose not to sell anything at 837. Calling itself a “technology playground and cultural destination,” 837 goes beyond letting consumers experience Samsung products unmolested by retail sales people (a worthy enough goal in consumer electronics). They want people to understand the company’s ambition and see what’s possible. Or, at the very least, discover that there’s more to Samsung than simply that it isn’t Apple.
Maybe just as important, though, is what a great brand-as-place proves. To build your own Brand Land, you’ll quickly discover you need an exceptionally coherent sense of what you stand for. Confined to advertising, any brand can bumble from message to message, never revealing whether there’s anything more than a product behind it. But ask it to be a building, a uniform, a wayfinding system, or a sensory experience, and the hucksters get quickly separated from the real thing. It’s no coincidence that the era in which Nike was at the height of its cultural power was also the one in which the Niketown retail experience verged on the sacred.
Even if you never intend to put a shovel in the ground, though, thinking about brands as places may prove to be the sturdiest paradigm for strategy in the 21st century. Many companies believe their messaging is their branding—but to function in a multi-platform world, you need more than just something to say. Places are perfect metaphors for brands because they’re experienced. And because they aren’t the solution to a consumer’s problem, they’re where the public go to find it. If you can’t imagine your brand as its own magic kingdom, preposterous as that may sound, you might still have some work to do.
In the meantime, I’ll be curious to see how 837 turns out for Samsung. It’s perhaps Apple’s single vulnerability as a brand that its stores do little more than smugly display its wares. Blowing an opportunity like that would just be, well, goofy.
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