Character: We develop Characters and Story Frameworks for brands.

Putting On a Show, Part II

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A couple of weeks ago I sent out an essay on the magic of retail, based on Michael Francis’s insight that retail, at its best, is like putting on a show every day. The essay seemed to strike a chord, and I heard from a lot of marketers—not just retailers—who identified with the show metaphor in a very personal way. (If you missed that essay, it’s posted here.) That got us thinking more deeply about the “putting on a show” metaphor and its implications for building a brand. First, you need to distinguish between a theme and a story, which was the subject of the previous blog post. But beyond that, it’s important to ground yourself so well in the story that you can welcome and celebrate surprises. A story with no surprise is generally pretty dull.

A friend who’s worked as an Imagineer at Disney tells me that they understand this principle very well and use it in the design of their theme parks. Disney knows that the story that its guests will take home with them is not the average of all their experiences at the park. In fact, all the “average” experiences—the ones that could have been anticipated, that live up to expectations—will quickly fade from memory. What will be left, what Disney hopes will form the backbone of the story that sticks with its guests, will be the surprises. Understanding the dynamic of story, Disney focuses its efforts on the extremes of experience. It does its best to minimize bad memories—long lines, dirty bathrooms, surly employees—and to optimize the possibility of special moments that its guests will remember and repeat to friends.

Of course, orchestrating delightful surprises and minimizing memorable catastrophes may seem easier if you are designing a theme park than if you are managing a department store or a restaurant chain—or an airline. Southwest Airlines, however, has been remarkably successful at building brand equity in an otherwise commoditized category because of its uncanny ability to imprint the meaning of its story on thousands of employees. Part of the Southwest story, right from the beginning, was about making air travel—previously an elite privilege—available to regular folk. This story was brought to life by Southwest’s famously quirky flight attendants, encouraged to customize the government-mandated safety announcement and to inject their own personality into a role that, on most other airlines, had become almost robotic. Southwest seemed to understand that it could put on a much more compelling show if it let the actors improvise a bit.

This ability of Southwest employees to improvise in character was demonstrated dramatically to my partner Jim during a recent holiday-travel ordeal:

I was flying out of Midway with our two young girls in tow. My wife had flown back to Oregon a few days earlier, and the girls were missing their mom. Following a tip from my wife that the Southwest check-in had been particularly crowded, we arrived a full two hours early, only to be greeted by the most staggeringly long line I’ve encountered in four decades of flying. The line stretched out of the ticketing area, past the elevators to the parking garage, around the entire interior of the airport and then all the way back to the Southwest counter. It wasn’t possible to comprehend how long that line really was without travelling its entire distance, through service corridors, up and down stairs and around other airlines’ check-in counters. It was truly the mother of all lines. I have no idea what had gone wrong, but everyone’s nerves were frayed, and uniformed Chicago police officers had been called in to ensure that the situation didn’t get out of hand.

After being assured by several airport employees that flights would probably be held to accommodate the massive delays, we decided to brave the line. We waited. And waited. And waited. Three hours we waited. Sure enough, our flight was delayed—once, twice—while we stood anxiously in line. Eventually, ten minutes after the posted departure time for our flight, we made it close to the front of the line. Keep in mind, we were only at check-in. We still had to clear security.

My kids were about to melt down, and I was fuming. We’d chosen Southwest because of a history of hassle-free, even pleasant flying experiences, but this was it. Not only was I never going to fly Southwest again, I was already mentally composing a nasty letter to Southwest management as we finally stepped up to the counter. When the attendant took our tickets, I told her that I thought we’d probably missed the flight and would need to rebook. She was a heavy, grandmotherly lady, and she shook her head sadly.

“Honey,” she said, “We’ve got so many people who’ve missed their flights, the soonest we could rebook you would be day after tomorrow.” At that, my youngest daughter, five, burst into tears. But then something interesting happened. The attendant looked us over, typed something into her computer and turned to my daughter. “Hold on a second, honey.” She got on the phone, and from her hushed but heated conversation I could only make out her last words: “You hold that plane.” As she hung up, she fixed us with a steely gaze. “Tie your shoes tight, everybody. We’re gonna get you in the air.” She came out from behind the counter, slung my daughter’s car seat over one shoulder and led us on an amazing sprint through the airport, flashing her security badge at three different clearance points to speed us through the flight-crew-only checkpoints. Puffing and sweating after our crazy run, I had no idea how she made it, car seat and all, but she did. And she got us on that flight, although she had to make the flight crew re-open the sealed jetway door, something I thought they never did except in the movies. With that unexpected effort, she saved the Southwest story for me and for everybody I’ve told about my misadventure.

Jim told me this story shortly after Southwest Airlines announced it would be the subject of a reality TV series on TLC that begins filming during the holiday-travel season. That’s taking the marketing-as-show metaphor right to the edge, since TLC is certainly not investing in the production of a TV series in order to document how easy, safe and uneventful air travel has become. But I’ll bet Southwest feels pretty confident that whatever surprises arise in the making of the series, they will be dealt with in a way that supports and energizes the story of the brand.

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