Creating Memorable Experiences

It’s common to talk about where we were or what we were doing when we heard news of a major event. Most people working today recall with vivid detail the morning of 9/11 2001. In the 1970’s, Harvard professors Roger Brown and James Kulik called memories like this flashbulb memories. They argued that important traumatic events are stored in a complete and vivid way that captures the context, the event, and the emotional reaction to it.

Fortunately, it is rare to experience an event that leaves a flashbulb memory. But some of the experiences we have do end up stored in our long-term memory to be retrieved later, and some evaporate before they get a chance. Brands are no exception. Branding is about recognizability and making sure that the positive experiences we have with them leave a lasting impression. These are recalled later when we have a need or want they can fulfill. Branding and memory in collusion.

Consumer brands rely on the premise that awareness and trial translate into preference over time and generate repeat sales. Most retailers have strong brand identities and distinct architecture, but a preference for a retailer is based on different expectations than for consumer brands. “Consumer brands focus on efficacy to earn repeat sales- did the stains come out of my clothes? The correlation between the brand’s visuals and the result is tangible and easy to remember” says Lynn Gonsior, ChangeUp Partner, “Retail is more complex, less tangible and the efficacy is hard to pinpoint. Designing what is memorable in a retail experience requires more than visually distinctive decor.”

A retail experience has to deliver on many levels to be effective, so well-designed visual brand assets are important, but not enough. In order to drive preference in retail, the experience needs to combine efficacy (I found what I was looking for at the right price) with strong, positive feelings about the trip that stick in the memory. Research into how and why we form memories suggests that retailers may be missing an opportunity to use store experience to more effectively generate loyalty.

At ChangeUp, we design memorable experiences by applying the right combination of insights and creativity, with an understanding of how people interact with environments. “Everyone is talking about how experience matters at retail, and we see a lot of journey-mapping to get at this. Mapping the moments is necessary, but shoppers don’t remember individual moments, they remember a story of the whole experience” says Gonsior. To design experiences shoppers will want to remember, it is important to respect how the brain processes experiences in space and time.

Our brains do not store memories as a replay tape of the experience, that would be inefficient and ultimately not very useful. Designing memorable experiences requires planting the seeds of a good story, versus simply creating a series of moments. According to renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman, we have two selves- an experiencing self and a remembering self. He writes “The experiencing self does all the living by going through a succession of moments while the remembering self is the one that gets to keep the memories. When people make decisions, the remembering self is in control.” The experiencing-self is bounded by the cognitive window of “now”, known as the specious present, and is about 3 seconds long. The remembering self is not bounded by “now”. It selectively catalogs moments from the experience and weaves them into a story for future recall. Shopping is a stream of moments that are seldom recalled specifically, because the individual tasks are mundane and not memory-worthy.

Stories saved in memory are incomplete and emphasize feelings over details. We remember the emotional items while forgetting their background contexts. Even a seemingly vivid memory of a party is unlikely to include many details. And negative moments take precedent over positive ones, especially if at the end of an experience. For instance, an otherwise enjoyable movie can be “ruined” if we don’t like the ending.

Designing for memory involves defining the strong feelings we want shoppers to experience and determining how and where to elicit them. A palette of positive feelings can be painted across an experience in the 4th dimension: it is the design of the time spent versus only the space it was spent in. These feelings either stand out individually or accumulate into a remembered experience.

This palette of positive experiences includes feelings that the store can trigger as the shopper moves through the space. Which relevant feelings to include like “I am a good parent” or “I feel happy when my house is clean” can be determined based on shopper insights. How they are elicited is through embedding visual and verbal elements into the experience that evoke the desired feelings, along with store associates or technology that can connect emotionally with the shopper. “The goal is to design for intense emotional responses, and there is a hierarchy of what brings intensity- interpersonal is strongest, visual imagery is next, and words are further down the list.” Says Gonsior. The right environmental design can provide both permission and prompting for memorable emotions to happen, as well as validating and intensifying them.

Designing for memory has the prerequisite of having a store that is easy to shop and offers the right combination of assortment, quality, and price- the retail fundamentals. Layering emotion onto an inherently unpleasant experience goes nowhere. Anxiety and frustration are the enemy of the positive memories retailers should desire to create. They ruin the story by taking over the plot. The retailers who see the value of experience as more than temporal and can turn it into an engine for making memories, will see the most success, and get the biggest return on their store design.

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