Projects Director Sarner International
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The best brand visitor attractions tell a story

18th Oct 2017
Projects Director Sarner International
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Creating an immersive experience to engage customers takes more than just inviting people to look behind the scenes. The best branded experiences tell a story about the product, its history and its future.

The idea of a business creating a visitor attraction as a way to build their brand reputation and encourage sales isn’t a new one. In the mid-1800s, businessman and wine trader Alexandre Le Grand opened the doors to his flamboyant Palais Bénédictine to help establish the myth about the drink Benedictine. He crafted an intriguing tale of finding a long-lost recipe in his library for an elixir that had been developed by Benedictine monks before the revolution. He provided visitors with an opportunity to visit the distillery and inspired them with his collected works of art. It was an over-the-top marketing exercise and survives today as a popular tourist attraction, despite the true story being uncovered that Le Grand had developed the recipe himself with a local chemist. It’s a 19th Century example of experiential marketing that successfully created public curiosity about the drink and its production.

A modern-day brand is under more scrutiny and could be given short shrift if they attempted to pull the wool over the public’s eyes about a product’s heritage. However, using a visitor attraction to extend a brand’s reach remains a popular and effective strategy. Each year more brands tap into this communication activity. In July 2017, the Guinness Storehouse, Ireland’s most popular visitor attraction, announced a €16m expansion plan, Disney revealed plans for a Star Wars Hotel, and Herseypark announced a further expansion to handle growing crowds of visitors. It’s a worldwide trend, with The Moomins, the popular children’s books and merchandising, set to open an attraction in Finland, Mario Kart confirming an immersive attraction in time for Tokyo Olympics and even a new theme park inspired by footballer Lionel Messi due to open in China in 2019.

A list of the world’s most popular tourist attractions doesn’t just include the Eiffel Tower and the Acropolis but many destinations that have been created by commercial businesses. This year’s World Travel Awards ranked Ferrari World in the top ten leading tourist attractions alongside museums and places of geographical interest. Ferrari World, in Dubai, is a branded theme park that promises the world’s fastest roller coaster along with opportunities to find out more about the automotive brand, and has been so successful that in April 2017 a brand new Ferrari Land opened as part of Spain’s largest theme park, PortAventura.

But before planning the rollercoasters or VR experiences, it’s important to get the story straight. You need to think about what feeling you want your brand to conjure up with loyal and new customers, to pour through the history of your organisation and pluck out the tales that demonstrate what the company is really like and what the brand stands for.

The most successful brand attractions tell great stories. Whatever exhibitions, rides or theatrical shows are presented as part of the attraction, the fundamental tool for success is the storytelling.

Storytelling is something that resonates with every culture. According to Brian Boyd, author of On the Origin of Stories, our minds are shaped to understand stories. The human’s fondness for storytelling, Boyd says, was derived from play, and has sharpened social cognition, encouraged cooperation and fostered creativity. It’s part of our evolution.

A critical factor in successful storytelling is authenticity. Marketing consultant Simon Sinek says that successful companies craft their stories when they explore not just the “what” or “how” of their business but the “why.” Understanding the purpose of your company, brand or property - its reason for existing - will help it stand out as separate and unique, and is a compelling way to authentic storytelling.

Bodmin Jail (Cornwall, UK) is undergoing a £30 million transformation to create an exciting and informative visitor attraction. The new attraction will tell the story of Cornwall’s rich history, the life and times of Bodmin Jail, tales of nearby Bodmin Moor and stories of the notorious criminals that passed through the 18th Century prison. The stories learned during the research process brought to light the attitudes to crime and punishment 200 years ago. The treatment of prisoners, some whose crimes only amounted to stealing a sheep, showed how treacherous life could be for anyone who strayed from the path. This story will inform every aspect of the visitors’ experience, from the dank smugglers’ cavern to the stormy coastline, through a crime-ridden Victorian village, encountering highwaymen, to the grimy, rat-infested cells.

The top experiences entertain and inform, becoming popular visitor attractions – going beyond a marketing exercise to generate revenue. Places like Jameson Distillery, Cadbury World and Legoland ask their audiences to travel and pay for a brand experience. The brand is strengthened by these visits, not just through the fun that’s had by enjoying a theatrical experience or riding a fairground ride, but because the visitor gets to hear the story behind the company and what it represents.

Storytelling is a powerful business tool and, despite it being something that we learn as a child, it’s a strategy that we can all use to our advantage.

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