Space, a much overlooked factor in cherished brands

What differentiates a place brand that is brought into people’s lives for good and a ‘just once’ experience? The answer is space.

What differentiates a place brand that is brought into people’s lives for good and a ‘just once’ experience? The answer is space.

We took a left turn down a nondescript alleyway and walked through a dead silent tunnel. We then descended a winding set of concrete stairs. Upon opening the steel door at their end we were greeted by the never-hushing buzz of patrons, the sound of schooners of craft beer clinking, bartenders shouting and the juxtaposing need to visually cope with a hazy, candle-lit and thus, dark atmosphere. The place was decorated to look like a saloon from an old western, with posters, uniforms and dark wooden surfaces to match. The only difference was that we weren’t surrounded by cowboys but men and women in corporate wear, leaving pitches, reports and moodboards (depending on their profession) behind for whisky and free pretzels. 
 Yet somehow, in this venue’s hype and reputation, in the way it was passed on as the place to be for cosmopolitans and really, corporate bohemians, I did not feel like it could serve the purpose that a saloon back in the day served. It was not a place I would repeatedly come to with my friends on Fridays, nor was it a place that I could ever call my own. If there was anything I could liken it to, it would be Disneyland- meticulously decorated and engineered to produce a certain feeling: a transplanting from the everyday to the magical.

But this is not the type of feeling that you want to be exposed to again and again, week after week. Nor was it the type of feeling that defines an entire segment of your life in moments of deep nostalgia as opposed to a particular moment. Importantly, creating this type of experience was also not the venue’s intention- this was not a destination or themed bar like those in Japan that pretend to be jails, hospitals or old English mansions with accompanying maids and butlers. This was an honest attempt at precise branding in a bid to create a place that people could come to and turn into their third place.

And thus arose the question- where lies the line? When does a place that stands for something clear, that occupies a special place at the front of a person’s mind, a place to build memories in (as all good brands do), tip over and become kitsch or a novelty? Why is it that certain brands- let’s say Starbucks, can create atmospheres that are pointed- evocative of coffee bars in dreamy cities far away, with the accompanying sound and smells, yet enable people to come back again and again? Why is it that certain Japanese bars in Sydney can bring the décor and interior designs of Kyoto in full force, yet be treated and accepted in a serious manner by university students and businessmen who want to completely let loose when the fortnightly pay check comes in?

I have a hypothesis for this. I believe that great brands and thus, brand experiences- and by great, I mean brands that remain relevant, have longevity and have a place not in someone’s mind, but someone’s life, leave space.

To simply and potently illustrate the importance of space, an interesting thing to look at is hip hop, one of the sub-cultures that has broken geographic boundaries the fastest and has created an entire lifestyle with its own material artefacts and signature design touches. In any one ‘bboy spot’ in the world you can see dancers of differing generations from different countries who are reading off a similar, global foundational script of movements and wearing the same iconic clothing. A knee jerk reaction may be that this movement is simply too big to compare to a brand. But therein is the interesting thing- its inception in New York in the block parties of the Bronx was very much a groundroots and undoubtedly small movement to begin with, so much so that its popularisation and growth lead to a temporary and thankfully short-lived death in the 80s. Hip hop stands for something and its purists know what that something is in detail (which is too big a topic to delve into at the moment).
 To me, the main characteristic of hip-hop that has catalysed its rapid spread is space. A dilapidated train carriage, an empty alleyway and a worn out brick wall all hold their own intrinsic beauty. But they present enough space for a graffiti artist to make something of their own. The same thing goes for the few square metres of concrete and raw drums that act as a catalyst for a bboy to move and the ‘break’ in 70s funk music where everything is removed except the drums which allows the DJ to repeat, cut and stitch together their own mixes.

Standing for something clear is a powerful thing, but it only becomes truly meaningful if a brand leaves some space for a person to contribute or create memories of one’s own. In reference to the place I described at the commencement of this piece, the bar left very little room to observe and interpret cues that could mean anything other than what it was engineered to be. The level of stimulus was simply too thick to understand anything in any way that was even subtly different to what was being shouted.

The answer to this dilemma is not entirely in co-design or co-creation, although these do have their place in creating a place brand that resonates. The answer, I feel, lies in simply being aware of the fact that great brands have been adopted and subsumed into a bigger story: people’s larger lives. Importantly, they do so because they are assigned with greater, more powerful meanings than those created by the strategists and designers behind them. These meanings could be a potent memory of a period of one’s life, a moment of deep belonging or even the peculiarity of something out of place. It is the job of the strategist and other designers to create brands that provide sufficient space for this to happen- not simply shout a message. This may mean more subtlety, or even aiming for imperfection or intentionally straying away from complete consistency. Whatever tactic is applied, what remains the same is that they must create visual communications, experiences and spaces that allow people to truly adopt things as their own. Because what greater point is there to business and branding?

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