People want two things: company or to be alone together. Either way, they flock to places that let them work but also mingle.
When I worked for Starbucks in the mid-nineties, I was exposed to their unique approach to brand building. At the time, I was a marketing exec at a mid-sized marketing communications firm that worked with Bed Bath & Beyond, Starbucks, and other major retail and consumer-facing brands.
They had a three-ring binder that served as a "brand bible." It had hundreds of pages that described the role that Starbucks wanted to fill in the lives of consumers. Rather than simply describing the features of their beverages, we learned about the concept of creating a "third place"--a physical location where people would go between work and home to rest, recharge, and be part of a community. The Starbucks brand was created by establishing an emotional connection to the needs of consumers. Starbucks innovated around the use of their real estate.
Make your business a hangout, not a transactional space.
At the time, this was revolutionary. Prior to Starbucks, coffee shops in the U.S. were designed to be purely transactional. The most frequently analyzed metric was sales per square feet, and the concept of a store dedicating valuable space just for customers to hang out after they had bought something was unheard of. We all know how it panned out. Starbucks is globally known and a second home for many.
Barnes & Noble adopted the trend. They added lounge chairs and then Starbucks itself to their locations. The bookstore café became a place to visit consistently and to explore, hang out, and to be alone together.
Last week, I spent two hours online at a Peet’s Coffee & Tea in Santa Clara, California. Something important has changed: People now work independently online. Before the days of free wifi, people used to mingle with friends over coffee. At Peet’s, I spent most of my time in my "fourth places"--my online communities, including Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, and OpenSky. Looking around, everyone was doing the same. We came for the wifi and bought the coffee.
The role of a physical space is very powerful in brand building. Businesses should think twice about how they can better capitalize on the full potential of their spaces.
Businesses have made a business of collaborative work-spaces.
Thanks to the innovative branding of companies like Starbucks, we now have co-working spaces across the country that riff off this model. General Assembly, WeWork, FueledCollective, and other co-working spaces have recognized this and inverted the Starbucks/Peet’s model. They’ve designed collaborative working environments that have free coffee and wifi and charge for the desks. These spaces are thriving because small businesses and freelancers/independent workers benefit from being in a dynamic environment that’s full of interesting creative people.
There are many more examples of companies innovating around the idea of space as brand innovation. I recently visited a retail store near my house called "City Swiggers." They sell artisanal beers from around the world and host tastings, monthly meetups, and other community focused events. Apple, of course, has mastered the creation of physical space as brand: Its classes, Genius Bar, and open spaces establish community and invite human interaction.
Use your space to help your clients out.
In our OpenSky office, we also prioritize our community of merchants. We host monthly OpenHouse events featuring panel discussions, product demos, and connecting businesses to one another. Every Thursday, we have "office hours" and one Saturday a month we invite merchants to meet with our team. We offer our conference rooms to our community and we program events and discussions around online marketing; fund-raising; how to use Facebook, Twitter, and OpenSky; and ways to improve a small business supply-chain. These are all designed to help small businesses and to teach entrepreneurs strategies for growing their businesses. We’ve made this commitment because we’ve found that our physical space helps build our relationships with our partners.
It may not be immediately obvious how your space can benefit your brand, but look around. Think about your key constituencies--your clients and business partners--and think about what they need. Can you turn that into a core feature of your brand?
JOHN CAPLAN is the founder and CEO of OpenSky, a social network for shopping. OpenSky launched in April 2011 and now has more than 2.5 million members. Before OpenSky, Caplan was the CEO of Ford Models and president of the About Network, which sold to Primedia in 2001 for more than $500 million.