By  on May 28, 2008

What's in an experience?

A potential marketing phenomenon, in the eyes of Fred Dust, who's in the business of creating experiences as a way to connect with people.

New Yorkers typically are drawn to the little known — and are known to keep some of their favorite scenes to themselves or their inner circle, observed Dust, experience designer at Ideo and author of the recently published "Eyes Open New York: A field guide for the curious," one edition of a two-volume tour of realms he considers distinctive in New York and London.

In the case of New York's inhabitants, the mystery surrounding certain experiences creates cachet. "Things that slowly build up buzz are a great form of marketing," Dust said over lunch at the Gramercy Park Hotel, one of 50 settings highlighted in "Eyes Open New York." This take on the allure of the lesser known, though, has not kept him from including evergreens ranging from Barney Greengrass and Florent to the 79th Street Boat Basin and Magnolia Bakery. (Florent, a 22-year-old fixture in the Meatpacking District, is closing on June 29.)

"This is prized in New York, versus California, where everyone talks about everything," the author-marketing consultant, a San Francisco resident, added.

Though Dust's thinking may seem a generalization, it is one example of "going broad," a process he describes in "Eyes Open" as "widening your perspective to include multiple experiences" and then making "some interesting connections." There's also "digging deep," interpreting behavior observed in different environments by considering the things that might have prompted that behavior and by asking people about it — "often a great way to gain more clarity about why things happen the way they do," he writes about understanding the effects of various environments. Going broad and digging deep are also methods the consultant uses in marketing efforts for Ideo clients, among them Louis Vuitton, Nike, Target, the Gap, Prada, Starbucks and The Ritz-Carlton hotels.

The Gramercy Park Hotel is listed in a section of the new book called Mingler, along with locales such as Bryant Park, The Campbell Apartment, Le Petit Puppy, The Point Knitting Room and Village Chess Shop. Of Ian Schrager's Gramercy Park Hotel, Dust writes: "There is an interesting subculture in New York that thrives in a very particular kind of place — hip hotel bars....Every hotel and restaurant owner knows what models can mean for business: a particularly decadent run of good fortune. At the Gramercy Park Hotel, you either have to be a guest to get into the private bar, or be a model or celeb of some sort."

There are also places in "Eyes Open" grouped under the headings of Observer, Diner and Shopper. Following each list of spots, the reader is asked a question to cue the possible experiences ahead. For instance, the nature of Mingler sites is telegraphed with the query, "Are you an adroit social navigator who can take a conversation in any direction?" Shopper site visitors are asked, "Are you excited to get the inside scoop on the latest indie movie, cut of meat or comic?" Fashion destinations are present as well in Shopper, including Bape NY, Crumpler, Calypso, Breakbeat Science and Jack Spade.

There's an inherent conflict in writing a guide to places in New York as experiences, while maintaining the more well known a place is, the less likely it may be to hold appeal. And it's an irony as the author's day job is to design environments meant to serve up a marketable appeal. But as Paul Bennett, Ideo's chief creative officer, noted in a separate interview, he considers the essence of marketing as "making ideas real for people," and "experiences are fundamentally real."

From the wide variety of venues he develops and observes, Dust named stores as "the most pivotal marketing platform," if one that's still underused. "Only in a store do you see what a brand's supposed to act like," the author-consultant said, citing Uniqlo's flagship in New York's SoHo section as an example. "It is so big — massive amounts of inventory [displayed] in a way that is eloquent. It is borrowing from the gallery perspective much as Moss," the interior design store-cum-gallery in SoHo.

Relatively few fashion brands are engaging in meaningful dialogues with consumers, in Bennett's view, with notable exceptions like Emporio Armani, through its participation in the (Product) Red fund-raising effort to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and Adidas, Puma and Nike, a trio he credited for connecting with people by asking questions in their marketing messages, rather than attempting to provide any answers.

In designing shopping experiences, fashion marketers ought to focus on doing one thing very well, Bennett advised, and try to make it emblematic of a brand, such as the much-ballyhooed Genius Bar in Apple's stores or the gift of a chocolate chip cookie to a Midwest Airlines passenger, baked onboard a flight. "We want people feeling as if they are a guest in our home," Michael Brophy, vice president of corporate communications at Midwest Airlines, said of in-flight touches such as the cookies and leather seats. Midwest began selling the cookie dough in its hub cities of Milwaukee and Kansas City, Mo., last winter.

Bennett's own favorite recent encounters are a duck into Bergdorf Goodman en route to a New York airport, when he remembered he needed a new shirt for his business trip and quickly found one with the help of a superior sales assistant, and his success in buying a hard-to-find jacket, via J. Crew, which ironed and altered it, and sent the jacket to California, where he was going for a wedding.

When Dust embarked on the "Eyes Open" project, he slashed 220 New York scenes to 80, via interviews, Web site visits and discovery of unique attributes. Then he visited New York last March to arrive at the final 50. "My fear was of the decline in local chains and rise in big chains," he recalled. But he found plenty of survivors, including one on Orchard Street. "Breakbeat Science is a great example," Dust said, "of a local record business that teamed with a local clothing store [BBlessing] and battled together to keep the space."

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