Would your spouse believe that you've changed simply because you drop a couple of hundred dollars on some expensive new denim and a designer jacket? (Well, my wife tells me that she expects more.) The trades are filled with stories of restaurants reimaging and redesigning their stores, often including quotes from the CEO or CMO about building the brand. Without question, a store's appearance is an essential component of a brand and keeping the brand relevant to customers. However, many redesign efforts result in limited, short-term impact because, like the new denim and jacket, they're only cosmetic changes.

Real brand impact only occurs when consumers shift perceptions and modify their behaviors toward your brand. This kind of impact requires understanding and modifying consumer behaviors to create a new experience — a new and better reality. Of course, design plays a major role in contributing to these changes, but the right kind of design is about much more than simple aesthetic changes. These changes need to mean something to the brand and ultimately to the guests. They offer a unique opportunity to communicate with guests and create longer term growth opportunities.

Many people correlate branding solely with marketing communications, but this is too narrow. Target's cool ad campaigns are clearly an important component of their success in creating brand perception. However, Target focused on delivering a better customer experience years before they undertook their everyday design approach to products and marketing. More importantly, they created a physical space that would change the shopping experience to support their brand's message. This included wider aisles, improved merchandising, better lighting and signage — all of which positioned Target as distinct from all of its discount competitors.

Over time, the company's successful delivery of the experience earned it the respect of customers and the right to create a bold, nontraditional brand for a discount mass merchandiser, which would have been unthinkable a couple of decades ago.

It's a great story and a great lesson. Marketing, but also physical space — the most direct interaction consumers have with a brand — results in an experience that, in turn, leads to differentiated brand perception. It can also translate to higher average unit volumes (AUVs) since a better experience can drive traffic and also serve as an essential complement as a platform for menu innovation.

Defining Experiences

Experiences affect behavior, shape the status of a relationship, create memories and affect how people feel. Obviously, these are important factors that need to be seriously considered in any business and even more so in service businesses such as restaurants. As you know, the experience derived at a restaurant is as much the product as the food itself.

But products and service do not solely define or limit an experience. What makes Chipotle Mexican Grill unique and differentiates it from other concepts is not just its great food, but a focused menu, a different way to order and a distinctive environment. Together, those attributes add up to a consistently positive experience that supports people's understanding of the core tenets of Chipotle's brand strategy.

Granted, Chipotle had the advantage of starting from scratch, not burdened with a brand history or the need to retrofit existing units. However, well-established brands can do it, too, as McDonald's has proven with its remarkable changes over the past several years.

How do you know if you've successfully defined your desired brand experience? You're on the right track if most people can consistently describe it, they can do so in a way that reflects the intended brand strategy, and the customer experience is core to the customer relationship. Can you say that about your restaurant?

The Right Approach

So, how do you get there? To move beyond the superficial, it's imperative first to think deeply and broadly about the ideal guest experience for your brand, and then follow a disciplined process to define it. This means asking the right questions, challenging assumptions and getting the right players involved from different functions and departments. Creating a truly differentiated customer experience is all about the approach and the process, which requires careful planning. It usually doesn't happen by chance or through a couple of brainstorming meetings.



Like any strategic exercise, this process starts with thoughtfully
exploring key questions, including:

      • What is our brand about, and what makes it different from all of our competitors?
      • • What would the ideal guest experience be if we had no limitations and could do anything?
      • • How do we create in-store experiences that change how our customers behave and the way people think about our brand?
      • • How and why is this something that only our brand could do?How is it "ownable"?
      • • How do all of the individual customer touch points reinforce the ideal experience?
      • • How can our entire constellation of operational and marketing tactics support each other?

While a brief article can't cover all of the details of the approach and process, it's worth highlighting some key considerations.

Plan the Process. Solving any big problem or making any big change involves a series of steps, each with its own purpose, approach and goal. To keep you on strategy, begin with a very clear purpose statement describing your end goal. This innovation process is iterative, starting with broad exploration and eventually leading to refinement of optimal ideas. Plan for these steps, including milestone meetings and work sessions, throughout the process.

Create Broad Internal Participation. This is a commonly overlooked, but incredibly valuable, aspect of this kind of project's success. Involving individuals from a broad set of functions within your organization has numerous benefits. It allows you to leverage subject matter expertise from varying disciplines, which enables richer, more informed conversations. This also inherently breaks down internal silos, vets potential implementation barriers early on and helps to create a unified vision and common sense of purpose. You may be surprised that Jim from ops is way more creative than you ever imagined.

Push for New, Big Ideas. The only way to get big ideas is to push for
completely new ones. At first, some of the ideas may seem absurd, but you need to keep them on the table. Throughout the process, you refine what once seemed like an unrealistic idea into a realistic one; you might discover it contains a useful nugget that leads to another workable idea.

Let it Get Messy. There will be times early on in the process when you ask yourself, "What did we actually achieve?" and "Where is this going?" This is good and should be taken into account. Often, people expect to achieve great ideas in a meeting or two. It likely won't happen that way. As important as planning what you will get out of early meetings, it is just as important to define what you won't get.

Stay cognizant of the end goal, but being too rigid early on in the process often creates more barriers than opportunities. As our executive creative director often wisely states, "There is plenty of time to kill ideas later."

Iterate, Refine, Iterate, Refine. This is where a lot of the art and skill of ideation and concept development comes into play. The best consumer experience ideas and concepts happen over the series of meetings throughout the process. Plan well and determine how you will take the plethora of information and ideas generated to turn them into concepts, recognizing that it's a delicate culling process. Marketing and marketing research folks are usually adept in this area, so consult them if this is not your core competency.

This is where our clients require the most guidance, as it is essentially defining how the creative process works and writing concept statements for the consumer research that will follow (assuming there is research, which is always recommended).

Take a Reality Check. Throughout the up-front planning process, check in regularly to make sure you're staying sharply focused on your stated purpose. A key aspect of this is asking if the consumer experience concepts being generated are true to your brand as well as believable and realistic to consumers.

Ultimately, taking a customer experience approach to reimaging could be summed up as thinking about the experience you want people to have in your stores before anything is designed. It will definitely lead to effective design solutions, but it will give you so much more.

Not only will your company create stores that work every day to support your brand as direct brand communication tools, but it also has great internal operational benefits. Approached this way, you will generate more ideas and better ideas, and you will create an exponential effect by involving others in your organization. In the end, your company will be closer to reinvention than redesign.

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