Interview With George Murphy, Modo-Group
Our first step was a global consumer insights project to help inform and inspire brand direction and the delivery of brand experiences. After the creative team was assembled, we began looking at non-traditional approaches to brand building. We explored new retail concepts with our strategic partner McDonald’s. We developed experiential product designs like the Shrink Tank and bottle messages. We even developed radical concepts to re-invent outdoor advertising. (The newly redesigned Coca-Cola sign in Times Square is a good example of what an in-house design team is capable producing – with the proper support.) Anyway, at that point, Coke was still looking for traditional advertising to solve most of their problems, but attitudes were starting to change.
I started Modo Group with the belief that as marketing departments shifted resources towards new media, experiential marketing and branded entertainment, they would require different support and resource models. We’re a cross between a management consultancy and an agency, helping marketers champion new brand strategies and manage atypical program implementations that are required today. We handle the insights, strategy and development, and also manage the business issues related to implementation and operations.
What is it about brand experience that is so important to you?
Well, it’s important to me when it’s important to the brand. And brands that focus on experiences are typically brands that are focused on building high value consumer relationships, not merely awareness. Creating highly contextual, immersive experiences, whether they be physical or digital environments, seem to be a good way to build these relationships. This is not new news. I think most brands have realized that it is time to look beyond advertising, not away, to build enduring brands with strong consumer relationships.
In the 90s you were behind the concept of Starbucks coffee room experience. Tell us a little about the thinking and why it has been so strategically important?
I was fortunate to be at Starbucks at an explosively creative and productive time. The business model was not so refined then. Big brand decisions we’re being made daily. Howard Schultz had assembled an incredibly talented team of executives to help him with those decisions including Scott Bedbury in marketing, Arthur Rubinfeld in Store Development, and Wright Massey in Design Development. For me, it was a crash course in brand development by some of the best in the business.
Starbucks at that time conceived of itself primarily as a purveyor of coffee and coffee drinks. In those days, even our store designs reflected this functionally efficient, austere definition – green and white – not much more. There was even a chair that we called the 10 minute chair because that’s about how long you could tolerate sitting in it!
We realized through creative exploration and consumer dialogues that Starbucks had a much more significant social role to play than coffee purveyor, that is, a role of a modern day coffee house. And by viewing Starbucks through this lens, we were able to open the influences on store and product design to the more emotionally rich imagery of coffee house culture. The store design shifted from efficiency to experience, adding layers of thematic imagery and plenty of overstuffed chairs for fireplace chats. The culture of the coffee house – art, literature, music and politics – influenced the product line up with the very successful expansion into jazz music. Key marketing partnerships were made with Oprah’s Book Club and the Sundance Film Festival. It seemed like overnight, Starbucks was part of the American lexicon.
There was a method behind the creative madness and Scott Bedbury and Arthur Rubinfeld have written books about it. The basic premise is that in order to build a great brand, you must understand the consumer context within which your brand operates so that you can build the distinctive positioning needed to establish highly relevant, contextual relationships with consumers. It’s the heart of the methodology that we bring to our clients at Modo Group today.
What was the purpose of the coke museum? Did it work?
The original purpose of the coke museum was to handle the dozens of grammar school tours made to Coca-Cola’s head quarters every day. It was not conceived as a “experiential” marketing program. The mythology from the time is that the wife of the CEO pushed for the first museum. I believe it was Paul Austin’s wife – before my time. She wanted a more appropriate, educationally enriching environment for the children who visited HQ.
Anyway, the Atlanta Olympics served as a catalyst to get the original opened. The first year saw more than a million people visit the location. The company was obviously ecstatic about the demonstration of loyalty. Locations were quickly added in Las Vegas and New York before cracks started to show indicating a need for a business plan and a consumer value proposition. While the idea of a Coca-Cola museum makes terrific sense in the home town of Atlanta, large scale facilities in other cities made less sense.
The new museum under development in Atlanta was meant to update the current location while making it a more relevant part of the Atlanta experience. My team at Coca-Cola was responsible for the original concepts and business planning. Amazingly, it is still under development. I understand that they are getting pretty close to opening.
You work with several brands with little retail experience, like Microsoft. How can a software brand utilize ‘brand experience’?
The same way Coke can utilize brand experiences. The Microsoft ecosystem is similar to Coca-Cola in many respects – I consider them both to be intellectual property companies. One sells software and manages its brands, the other company sells beverage formulas and manages its brands.
Microsoft sells its software product to a manufacturer just as Coca-Cola sells its beverage formula to bottlers who manufacture the product. The OEM/Bottlers are responsible for distribution to the consumer through retail customers or direct sales. Both Microsoft and Coca-Cola are responsible for generating demand for their products and affinity for their brands. And given their limited access to end users, they have both emphasized advertising as their primary story telling vehicle.
And like most companies, that emphasis is changing.
Microsoft began augmenting their advertising investments by looking at the consumer experience, especially in retail, as a way to showcase Microsoft products and services. If you walk into a Best Buy today, you’ll see that the two companies have begun to collaborate on scenario demonstrations of products to help consumers experiment and discover what they need. They get to familiarize themselves with the various brands and product options made possible by the Microsoft platform. This gives consumers the confidence to try something new, like say digital photography. Understanding the end-to-end experience allows them to visualize how it will enhance their life and give them greater control over their technology. But best of all, a richer, more immersive experience empowers a consumer and converts them into powerful brand advocates. And this can be the start of some very interesting social networking on behalf of a brand.