Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

Creative Winter

My latest post is online over at The Midwesterner, the blog of Richard Longworth and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. It’s called “The Midwest’s Creative Winter.” It is co-authored with Carl Wohlt.

Fast Company recently issued its 100 Most Creative People in Business list for 2010. Out of 100, the Midwest only placed six. The South only placed seven. While you can quibble with magazine rankings, the results of this survey are fully consistent with many others done in recent years. The Midwest is a laggard of a region. Our piece briefly explores the implications of this.

One again, I’ll encourage you to check out Longworth’s blog, which is a must read for anyone in the Midwest.

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

Carl Wohlt: Learning from Starbucks

In Learning from Las Vegas, authors Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour challenged the architectural community to re-examine the design of commercial structures along the Las Vegas Strip. They believed that the explicitly symbolic features of “ugly and ordinary” vernacular design along the Strip were every bit as functional and legitimate as the forms created by modernist architects. Learning from popular culture, they suggested, would make high culture elites “more sympathetic to current needs and issues” and promote the creation of “people’s architecture as people want it.”

Can the Midwest’s struggling commercial areas learn from Las Vegas? Perhaps. Almost every town of any size has the ubiquitous strip of auto-oriented franchises and retail boxes. Rather than trying to reduce the visual affects of blatantly commercial signs and structures, perhaps these features should be ramped up and made even more dazzling and playful. Everyone needs a little excitement in their life. If a community’s local version of the Las Vegas Strip can provide some of it, maybe that should be celebrated and not dialed down as most of today’s conventional zoning and design regulating practices attempt to do.

However, for the traditional commercial centers of most Midwestern cities, the drama of the Las Vegas Strip is probably far too over the top. Many have historic features that are integral to the community’s unique culture and identity. Showcasing these elements requires a much more nuanced approach. To enhance marketplace appeal, I believe these places would be much better served by learning not from Las Vegas but from Starbucks.

To understand why, it’s useful to glance at the research from the field of environmental psychology that emerged in 1950s and 1960s, often driven by collaborations between psychologists and architects. Daniel Stokols, who in 1987 coedited two comprehensive volumes entitled Handbook of Environmental Psychology, described the field as “the study of human behavior and well-being in relation to the large-scale sociophysical environment.” Early research focused not only on environmental characteristics but also personality and individual dispositions towards a variety of environmental topics. The visibility of the field has waxed and waned over the years, in part because much of the work has been adopted into mainstream psychology. In some design quarters, interest remains strong, as demonstrated by the work of “evidence based design” advocates.

Most of the research has focused on interior environments. In a 2002 Journal of Business Research article, L. W. Turley and R. E. Milliman wrote that research pertaining to “exterior variables,” including storefronts, marquess, entrances, building architecture, parking and the surrounding area had been extremely limited to date. However, they also noted three studies that found “external variables have an influence on the behavior of retail customers.”

Private sector retailers continue to research how interior store environments affect consumer behaviors, most of which is proprietary and never published. Called “atmospherics,” a term used by Philip Kotler in an influential 1973 Journal of Retailing article, this research has focused on a variety of variables, including sound and music, color, lighting, crowding, store layout, scent, ambient odor and various social factors. Greenland and McGoldrick’s 2004 working paper “Measuring the Atmospheric Impact of Customers” provides an excellent summary of atmospherics research, including a list of completed studies organized into categories based on the five human sensual receptors — visual, aural, tactile, olfactory and taste.

The absence of research on exterior commercial environments should not deter downtown stakeholders from taking advantage of strategies that have proven effective for retailers. I think Starbucks is an especially useful model because they demonstrate in a very compact space how to effectively appeal to every human sense. These positive sensory experiences help customers develop strong emotional connections to the Starbucks brand.

Kevin Roberts, in his wonderful book Lovemarks, underscores the value of making these emotional connections:

Direct, provocative, immediate. Tough to fool. Even tougher to override. The senses speak to the mind in the language of emotions, not words. Emotions alert us to how important the findings of our senses are, not only to our well-being, but indeed to our very survival.

To Roberts, the sensory connection is how “lovemarks” — brands that “inspire loyalty beyond reason” — are created. The lovemarks concept helps to explain why Starbucks remains one of the world’s top brands even though they’ve faced some serious marketplace challenges over the past several years.

Creating a positive sensory experience is not just about brand building. More fundamentally, it’s about the degree to which commercial areas compel visits and, just as importantly, return visits. From the work of environmental psychologists, we know that places motivate one of two basic behavioral responses — people either feel comfortable approaching them or they avoid them. This sounds incredibly simple, but it’s actually quite profound when you think about it because it’s the essence of what development and redevelopment initiatives are really all about. Approach / avoidance behaviors are triggered by emotional responses that are generated by either cognitive processes (“I heard/read this place is safe/dangerous, so I think I feel most comfortable approaching/avoiding it”) or through sensory data acquired directly from the environment (“this place looks good, smells good, tastes good, sounds good and feels good — or it doesn’t — so I will approach/avoid it”).

For commercial district stakeholders, the emotional responses generated through cognitive processes help to underscore the value of creating and managing a brand image and identity that motivates approach behaviors. However, the success of the brand image begins with and is reinforced over time by the emotional responses of visitors who experience the place first hand at a sensory level. This is where the folks at Starbucks really nail it — and, the lessons of Starbucks are remarkably direct and simple to comprehend once you become aware of the individual sensory experiences.

For starters, Starbucks interiors are visually appealing. The color treatments are warm and friendly, which encourage customers to slow down and linger. The lighting is generally subdued and feels very natural. The casual atmosphere is almost the opposite of the high pressure, brightly lit work environments in which many of their customers must toil. As someone with a background in graphic design, I find the consistently high quality of the packaging on display especially impressive. Of course, the aroma of freshly brewing coffee is always appealing, and there are always a number of other tasty products to enjoy. There’s usually good music by top-notch artists playing in the background. The environments are easy to comprehend and navigate regardless of the unique characteristics of the specific store site. The seating is varied and comfortable. And, who among us does not appreciate the availability of free, clean bathrooms? I almost never see an empty Starbucks, and this is golden. In the immortal word of William Whyte, “what attracts other people most, it would appear, is other people.”

If your commercial areas are not creating the strong emotional connections that motivate approach behaviors and brand loyalty, conducting an informal sensory audit is a simple way to better understand your strengths and the issues that might be holding you back. To create Starbucks-like emotional connections, the sensory variables have to be working largely in synch — one or two chronic weaknesses can inhibit the connection.

Years ago, my wife and I were looking for place to have coffee on a beautiful May afternoon in Paris. We found a charming outdoor cafe with a stunning view of the Eiffel Tower and sat down. The coffee was excellent, the chairs were comfortable and the visuals were classically Parisian. However, after about ten minutes, we started to become annoyed by the constant stream of busses that were pulling up to the curb by our table in increasing numbers. It was difficult to carry on a conversation and the exhaust fumes became overwhelming. We hadn’t noticed that our charming little cafe was located at a bus stop. So, the coffee was good, the seating was comfy and the visuals were outstanding. But the noise and exhaust fumes from the buses made the overall experience very unpleasant. A positive emotional connection to the cafe was never established.

A walk around your commercial areas in different seasons and at different times of the day with a focus on the sensory experience can be highly revealing. Is it visually appealing, night and day, all year long? Are the smells pleasant — or, is there at least an absence of obnoxious odors that might drive visitors away? Are there places to dine, grab a snack or have drink with friends? Are the sounds you hear appealing or discomforting? Are your commercial areas easy to access and navigate for both pedestrians and those arriving by vehicle? Are there comfortable places to sit and linger? Are there convenient public bathrooms or places to change a diaper?

At a sensory level, all places have strengths and weaknesses. As mentioned, other factors such as individual personalities and personal preference also influence emotions. For example, some people will never find your downtown appealing no matter how much your strive to please. One person’s child pleasing splash fountain is another person’s highly irritating noise machine. But without a critical mass of largely positive sensory experiences, a la Starbucks, your chances of motivating “approach” behaviors and brand loyalty are greatly diminished.

For commercial area stakeholders seeking inspiration for ways to attract more customers, inspire them to stay longer, spend more money and compel them to return again and again, a visit to the closest Starbucks is a good place to start.

Carl Wohlt is the founder and principal of wohltgroup, a placebranding consultancy. He can be reached at

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