Multi-sensory brand experience.

January 26th, 2015

This is a guest contribution from Robert Jones – head of new thinking at Wolff Olins. Robert instinctively analyses brands – even whilst on holiday(!) – it’s in his DNA.

Benidorm run by Waitrose. If you imagine that, you get the idea about the hotel where I spent the first week of January, in the sun in Tenerife. A big resort hotel, run with huge precision, orderliness, and a wonderful spirit of service. A great hotel, and a great way to start the year. But it wasn’t entirely a holiday, because it made me think about brand, and about design beyond brand.

At Wolff Olins, the brand consultancy where I work, we’re doing a lot of thinking about what we do, and how best to describe it. We started as a design company 50 years ago, and maybe ‘design’ is still the best word. In the last 20 years, though, we’ve preferred the word ‘brand’. Now, we’re thinking we might be something broader like ‘creative partners’ to our clients.

One reason for this is that so much of what we do isn’t graphic design, or anything to do with communications at all – but much wider work on the whole customer experience. Like so many other consultancies, we’re talking about ‘UX’. We have a theory about 360-degree brand experience, covering the visual and verbal, but also the sensory and interactive. We find ourselves using horrible words like ‘olfactory’ (smell) and ‘haptic’ (touch).

And these things are now central to the postgrad course I teach on brand leadership at UEA in Norwich. Branding is now about what an organisation does, not what it says.

Back in Tenerife, I was experiencing two brands, both trying to do all this multi-sensory experience stuff. The hotel brand, Meliá, used smell and gesture. Reception was constantly sprayed with a Meliá smell (too overpowering). More interestingly, staff greeted guests (and each other) with a Meliá gesture, putting their right hand on their heart. It sounds cheesy, but it wasn’t done by rote, and its effect was rather charming. Service everywhere was unstuffy and impeccable.

And then occupying 40% of the hotel was the Tui brand, Sensatori. (Tui is Thomson in the UK – I know, this is all getting complicated.) Sensatori is Tui’s newish brand for upmarket resort hotels, and behind it you can almost see some poor brand consultant’s laboured PowerPoint. Sensatori, apparently. is about the senses, and a yoga word to do with magical moments. And the activities at the hotel are all organised into four ‘senses’, except they’re not senses at all, they’re words like ‘adventure’ and ‘play’. It’s all trying too hard. The brand seems to be successful at selling holidays, but as a brand experience, it’s not convincing.

These sorts of things are, of course, notoriously tough to roll out. They depend on the day-to-day behaviour of hotel staff and holiday company reps, which is very hard to control. But what made the difference between Meliá and Sensatori?

First, simplicity. The Meliá gesture couldn’t be simpler – rather like the double-circle gesture used by our Wolff Olins client, Virgin Media. And second, naturalness. The Meliá brand seems to come naturally to its staff, much like the unforced way people act at another Wolff Olins brand, First Direct. What both brands miss, interestingly, is an integrated online experience – odd, when almost every hotel guest was carrying a smartphone or a tablet.

In the end, it’s not about control at all, but about shaping a whole experience through one or two small examples, little beacons of brilliance, such as the Meliá gesture.

And perhaps designing these beacons – rather than creating an elaborate framework like Sensatori’s four senses – is the new essence of design.

Robert Jones is head of new thinking at Wolff Olins in London, and visiting professor at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. He is author of The Big Idea, and is currently writing a new book for Oxford University Press. Robert created a free online course on branding on the new FutureLearn platform. You can follow him on Twitter.

Share this article –

Subscribe to our Scrapbook updates –