The Barstool MBA: The Brand as Experience
by Dan Maccarone and Bob Sullivan
A screeching ring pierces the otherwise silent 4:30 a.m Sunday morning. Dan rolls over and sees his then-wife wife, Mel, groggily hit accept on her iPhone, then listens to one side of a conversation that escalates quickly. She hangs up.
“What was that about?” Dan asks, hoping against hope he could turn over and go back to sleep.
“That was Josh. He’s freaking out. A guy was just shot right outside our bar.”
It’s August of 2009 and we were two months in as bar owners. Welcome to the business.
Josh, the bartender closing that night, had every reason to freak out, of course. Taz, the guy who had been shot, was a regular at our bar, Destination, in Manhattan’s East Village. He was also a doorman at a different bar across the street. He’d been off that night and Josh had even served him a couple hours before the shooting. He was pronounced dead that night. Two other patrons were wounded.
This was ridiculous. The East Village in 2009 was about as safe as you could get — a far cry from the violence of its drug days 15 years before. And here we were in the middle of the night dealing with a situation beyond our wildest imagination. This was the first of many experiences owning a bar that taught us: you have to be prepared for anything.
As children and workers of the always-on digital age, we are both very familiar with middle-of-the-night calls. They nearly always involve a “crisis” that could have waited until morning. But not this one.
There’s a lot you can learn in a bar, and a lot you can learn from the bar business — even things you never wanted to know, like how to react to a murder outside your front door.. We know a fair share about bars, and business. Dan co-founded interactive design firms Hard Candy Shell and Charming Robot, which has helped launch and re-launch products with dozens of brands you know, including Hulu, Saturday Night Live, Billboard and Gawker. More to our point here, he’s also owned two NYC bars, making him the “industry insider” for this series. Bob is a business journalist who’s written two New York Times best sellers. He’s also a musician who plays about 100 bar gigs every year. He’s the “outside observer.” From behind a drum kit he’s seen bars and businesses thrive and fail because they’ve hit or missed on some basic things.
Together, we think we’ve found a series of principles you can apply to your business, or your life, and we plan to share them during the next few months. Today, we’ll kick off the series with some thoughts about taking control of your brand…even in the most challenging circumstances.
When Destination opened, Dan was still running Hard Candy Shell. The bar was supposed to be a side project, but quickly turned into a second job when the day-to-day challenges of running a bar became obvious. Steering two very different businesses concurrently, it quickly became clear that the parallels of the everyday bar world and the professional world outside of it were striking. Owning a bar made it clear that business hours and after-hours were two sides of the same coin.
“THE EXPERIENCE IS YOUR BRAND”
At Charming Robot, we begin every project by saying “The experience is your brand” to our clients. It means this: Every touchpoint a person or customer has with your brand matters. Whether that’s browsing in your physical store, navigating your website on an iPhone while in line at Starbucks, complaining to you on Twitter or any other point of interaction. How your product or company addresses customers’ issues and allows them to accomplish their goals is paramount to creating a successful brand.
With a bar, these points couldn’t be more obvious. If you think about it, from the moment a customer walks into a bar, consciously or subconsciously, they are forming an impression of the establishment. From the decor to the beers on tap to the person behind the “stick,” everything matters.
The Bartender/ The Face
The bartender is the ultimate face of the establishment and could well be the most important factor. One bar group I know- they own Whiskey Town, Whiskey Tavern, Whiskey Brooklyn, The Whiskey Annex, The Little Whiskey & The Big Whiskey in Manhattan- requires their bartenders to introduce themselves to each new customer. This creates an immediate personal relationship. And gives the customer an immediate positive acknowledgement.
How often have you walked into a bar where the bartender is pounding away texts on their phone or lazily reading the paper barely registering that you’ve walked in — never mind that you want a drink? There’s nothing worse to create an immediate barrier and show you disrespect.
Unless you own the bar. Then there’s nothing worse than having people walk in who want to spend money, but walk out before ever dropping a dime — all for want of a hello. Bob sees it often from the corner where he’s playing drums. In the time it takes to finish a single song, a group can walk in, look around, feel ignored, and decide to walk out.
But the opposite is also true. Mel McNally is the architect and founder behind the Irish Pub Company, which has helped open or redesign more than 1,000 bars around the planet. We’ll talk more about his design principles later in this series, but chief among them: the main bar should be constructed so the bartender can always see the front door easily. That’s so she or he can smile the moment would-be drinkers approach the door and even think about entering the place.
“C’mon in, here’s a stool,” works nearly 100 percent of the time. Even if it’s followed by, “I’ll be right with you.” Most people simply need a hello to cross the threshold and walk in. They’ll wait patiently, if you respect them.
When hiring bartenders for Destination, the goal was to find people who we could trust as the face of our establishment. The brand thesis was that apartments in the East Village are tiny and everyone deserves to have a living room; our bar was going to be just that. We needed people who you’d want to spend an afternoon hanging out with. Folks with friendly, approachable attitudes who could inspire good conversation, keep the day moving and, most importantly, keep you refilling your drinks (it was a business after all). We needed a staff who could not only turn a bar with just a few patrons at stools into a warm environment but could also as well hold their own with the demands of a bar four people deep on a Saturday night — ensuring that people already a few gin & tonics in could easily order their next cocktail without feeling ignored while 20 other people needed to be served.
Whether you’re Bloomingdale’s or The New York Times or Nest, that experience of how consumers interact with the product is just as important. Is there a friendly, helpful tone to the sales people? Is the article you’re trying to read easy to get through (no one hates having to close overlays more than Dan); can you easily set up and use the product when you take it out of the box? There’s a reason all Apple gadgets arrive with an unboxing experience that feels luxurious. People love their Apple gadgets before they ever turn them on.
Whether or not you know what you want to drink or eat when you stroll into a bar, the bartender should quickly assess how to help you and deliver in a fast and friendly way. The same is true of any other business. If a client emails you, you may not need to respond immediately, but you’d better not wait two days. In a workshop Dan gives on smart product design, he often asks participants to describe the best shopping experience they’ve ever had. Amazon comes up again and again because of its one-click purchase feature. What’s easier than that?
The first impression sets the tone. Think about the last time you connected with a firm for the first time. It only has a few seconds to prove it has about you and your needs That’s established in those first few seconds when the bartender introduces him or herself, or when you return that first email from a potential client, or when someone arrives at your site and has a clear idea of who you are and what you do.
Speaking of creating a “clear idea,” the second aspect of the experience is the decor. Once again, in a bar, this is obvious. The concept of the bar should be clear: dive, cocktail, sports, lounge, tavern, pub, etc. And there should be a reason for this place to exist where it is. When opening Destination, we found the location, on the NW corner of Avenue A and 13th Street in Manhattan, before we knew the concept. To refine what exactly we were going to create, we looked around to see who our competition was.
Within two blocks there were about 12 other bars: a great craft beer spot, a sports bar, an Irish Pub, a small German place, a couple of late night clubs, and two super divey bars where the regulars lined up at 8 a.m. for their daily fix of well whiskey and PBRs. But there wasn’t a real neighborhood joint. That was our opening. We had to create a space that immediately evoked friendliness, warmth, and comfort, so from the moment someone peeped into the windows they knew they were welcome.
This isn’t done easily (or everyone would do it), and every detail matters. There should be a reason for everything and why it exists where it does: Think, ‘Why those particular tables or stools?” This is clearly demonstrated with the exploding flat-screen TV phenomenon. Often bars will put in TVs everywhere, just to make sure they can show sports, believing that will draw a crowd. But what if the screens don’t fit your concept? What if you’re an intimate wine bar or high end cocktail bar? Then people become confused and the screens become distracting.
Copycatting — or borrowing ideas from other businesses — is a classic mistake, where elements are added without a true strategy.
This may sound silly. Bars have to make money and if the screens bring people in, then shouldn’t that be all that matters? Maybe, but that’s basically a bandaid. What you need is a strong concept. You need to understand who your audience is, so that when they walk through the door, they get it and want the experience you’re creating.
We see copycatting with clients all the time; it comes from a place of fear. A few years ago, every project we worked on (didn’t matter the industry) started with a client asking us to design their homepage to look like Pinterest. When we’d ask why, they’d inevitably say “Pinterest has a ton of users, so we should use their design so we do too.” This, of course, didn’t take into account that Pinterest had a specific audience, and their design had a specific purpose that doesn’t work for everyone.
In the bar world, that would be like creating a wine bar with 12 flat-screens blasting the sound from a Giants game on Sunday afternoon while everyone around them sipped Pinot Noir and sampled charcuterie. One of these things is not like the other.
Whether you’re a bar or anything else, you also don’t want your design to get in the way. Anything that distracts the customer from getting what they want will hit the bottom line.
In addition to non-strategic TV screens, bars also deal with wear and tear. If a stool’s seat is torn or there’s layers of dust, people are going to notice and unless you’re purposefully a dive bar (and good for you if you are), it’s just going to impact people’s impression of your space.
Out-of-date design, cluttered or “unthought through” experience hurt all businesses. Design is indicative of relevancy. If you’re not paying attention to your aesthetic, it could look like you just don’t care. Nothing is less inspiring than a business that has appeared to give up. Without keeping your bar clean, without evolving your digital presence as technology and people’s comfort with various devices improve, without putting aside what everyone else is doing and truly thinking through the right aesthetic for you, you’ll miss out on truly communicating what you’re all about. If a single picture can really communicate 1,000 words, imagine what the wrong look and feel communicates.
We’re always blown away when restaurants serve inedible or unseasoned food. We admit we have a proclivity for the salty side of things (both in food and in life), but your menu should say something about who you are. Dan’s friend Sang Yoon owns the gastropub Father’s Office in Los Angeles. His burger is consistently named the best in LA, but it’s also a controversial victual because he doesn’t allow any changes or substitutions to it — that means no ketchup for those of us who enjoy that sort of thing. He’s taking a stand for what he believes his burger is, and won’t compromise. It’s both bold and frustrating, but it’s a detail for his business and we admire him for that.
It’s really challenging to take a stand with any product experience because it’s easy to just stick with the status quo, or to copycat. In a bar, it’s really easy to just acquiesce and carry the standards like Bud Lite, PBR and Sam Adams and choosing a more unique beer list can seem dangerous, but can also distinguish you from the clutter of options people have when it comes to bars or beers.
We work with a lot of media companies at Charming Robot and that “fear of missing out” attitude surfaces everytime we talk about advertising and content.
Everyone in media admits that banner ads aren’t effective, NASCARing even the most respected media brands. But when presented with alternate, less-tested types of revenue, content people balk; the unknown seems harder than the known. Choosing the right ad strategy that impacts the consumption experience (beer or content) is critical to how people think of you.
Here’s an example: Can you tell the difference between fresh and pre-made guacamole? Order gauc at a restaurant and it’s pretty easy to distinguish between the almost too perfectly smooth, too bright green preserved version and the chunkier just-made variety. For the restaurant, the pre-made version is more cost effective. It comes in a slab, wrapped in a plastic bag and restaurant owners can still charge a premium for it. I would argue a restaurant that opts for the slab doesn’t care about delighting their customer, since it takes roughly 30 seconds to make a batch if prep is done right.
Taking a few extra minutes to serve content or advertising to customers that has a higher impact is worth it. Buzzfeed, Vox, Vice, Skift — they all have found new ways to drive revenue that doesn’t depend on slapping skyscraper ads in the right rail that users will never actually see, and they’re generally delighting their readers while controlling the conversation themselves.
Caring about the quality or distinctness of your food and drink not only improves the experience, it can also create buzz. Sang’s burger policy generates plenty of PR for him. Buzzfeed brings in gobs of money charging brands for listicles they probably could have generated pageviews for anyway.
Restaurants & bars are some of the hardest businesses to maintain. While many factors determine their ultimate success or failure (location! recession!), owning an identity in all aspects of the business is right near the top. These same tenets are true whether you’re in creative services, widget sales, or anything else. Every touch point of your product (your website, your experience in person, twitter, facebook, etc) should be consistent. For brands like Time Warner Cable, they are great at being consistently terrible in all sides. Companies like Virgin do it well, from the flight attendants screen ordering system to the smooth booking process online.
In the end it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how uncommon it is: show people you care and continue to care. Make it worth their while. And they will toast you while they give you their money. It’s really that simple.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Dan Maccarone is the co-founder of Charming Robot, a digital product design agency in NYC. He also hosts the podcast Story in a Bottle, chronicling the stories of tech and media professionals. Follow him on Twitter @danmaccarone.