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About the Author
As Creative Director at Thinkwell Group, Eric Hoff connects guests with stories and ideas through spaces and experiences. Eric works closely with designers, artists, and project managers to create a vision for the project and ensure that vision is carried through from concept to execution. Prior to Thinkwell, Eric worked as a producer and director for a variety of immersive nightlife experiences, alternate reality games, stage plays, and musicals across the US. His favorite productions have been Hit The Wall off-Broadway in New York, NY, REVIVAL at the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago, IL, and The Society, which took place throughout Los Angeles County, CA.

The Key to Creating Unforgettable Experiences

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Follow me for a moment into an imaginary bakery.


You walk up to the front door and notice the signage in the window. Once inside, you take a minute to enjoy the sights and smells – maybe the shop has an open kitchen so you can see the chefs rolling out layers of croissant dough and hear them bantering as they pull fresh loaves of bread from the brick oven.


You’ll probably be encouraged by the layout of the store to take a certain path to the register, and probably it leads past the pastry counter, where you can examine the pastries, then make a decision based on what looks good, which smells are emanating from the kitchen, and input from the friendly bakery shop counter staff.


Every moment works together to create a cohesive brand experience that delivers on the promise of wholesome, fresh-baked deliciousness at every step, from the moment you walk through the door to when you lick the last bit of frosting off your fingertips.


All day long, our brains are receiving thousands of pieces of information. The part of the brain responsible for analyzing all the sensory inputs coming at us, the hippocampus, has to decide what’s worth the effort of encoding into our long-term memories. Anything that doesn’t stand out simply doesn’t make the cut.


Is your hippocampus going to waste resources remembering a perfectly normal trip to the grocery store from three weeks ago? Not a chance. But an extraordinary brand experience, on the other hand? Your hippocampus might just think that’s worth hanging on to.


Maybe as you read the above description you started thinking about a favorite bakery you’ve visited. You might have been hit with thoughts of how mouth-watering the cinnamon rolls were. Maybe you could even smell the fresh bread in your memory or hear the whir of the espresso machine.


That’s because if a bakery – or any business – delivers a satisfying emotional experience, it will become seared into your memory. And tactile, sensory memories are far more persistent than some billboard or retargeting ad.


As consumers, we spend an increasing amount of our time online – but we still live in the physical world. Even if a customer never sets foot in your store they still receive your product, open the box, and use it in real life. Even a purely digital product is experienced in a physical way: through our eyes, our ears, and the emotions we experience in our physical bodies.


Tapping into your customers’ emotions in the real world isn’t easy, but I would argue it’s one of the most important things you can do if you want your brand to stand out in a noisy world. When we connect our senses and emotions to a brand, we make memories that linger. (And, hopefully, memories we want to tell our friends about.)  


In essence, you’re putting on a show, and your customers are your audience. Only instead of in a traditional theater, you’re inviting them to interact with the experience, to move through your retail location or page through your website.


The trick to doing it in a way that’s meaningful is to flip the script and start thinking about your brand experience from the perspective of your customer.


I’ve worked in theater, public relations, community organizing, and now as a creative director for the Thinkwell Group, an experience design company. When we’re working with a new client to come up with a brand experience, our primary focus is to get our clients to think like audience members.


We do that by asking two specific questions: What do guests expect from an experience? And, what do guests want from an experience?


The fascinating thing is that, in most cases, the guest expectations skew towards the negative. When we ask ourselves to think about what the future guest’s mindset will be when he or she hears a company is building a brand experience, it tends to be a little bit cynical. Maybe that’s because, since we are customers ourselves, we’ve all had the experience of being at the receiving end of a hokey, self-serving brand experience.


When we ask about guest wants, on the other hand, those responses tend to be much more positive. Guests want to be entertained, to feel like their time was well spent, to enjoy themselves, to feel a connection. When we talk about what guests want out of a brand experience, that’s when we tend to see eyes light up around the room.


Asking those two questions can help you get to the heart of why you’re trying to create a memorable brand experience: you’re doing it for the customer. The answers can guide you as you brainstorm ways to blow guest expectations out of the water and give people what they really want.  


Whether I’m directing a play, organizing a volunteer event, or designing a guest experience for Thinkwell, I’m always asking myself the same questions you should be: What about your brand experience are your customers going to be talking about on the way home? What is going to excite them so much they share it on Instagram? What will be so compelling that, a month from now, they’ll be gushing about your brand to their friend over lunch?


What tactile, sensory experience is going to provide so much emotional value to your customer that their hippocampus decides to stash it away for the long term?


When you can answer that question, you’ll be on the right track to creating a brand experience that’s truly worth remembering.