As Western economies shift their focus from manufacturing to creating and selling experiences to consumers, opportunities will emerge for arts organisations. Howard Raynor explains.
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Experience is the issue of the century. In terms of the economy, the whole see-saw between making stuff and being creative has missed the point. As consumers, we havent been acting rationally over the past two million years and we arent about to start.
As human beings, we are wired for symbols, emotions, stories, power systems: the very stuff of the arts. We are preoccupied most of the time with our memories and imaginations and, despite the revelations of scientific thought, we simply dont respond to logic in the way most people would like to believe. Read any newspaper on any day and you will find the evidence. We operate in a world of experience not data.
So how does all this relate to our boosted-production world economy and to our particular sector? Just because stuff is cheaper doesnt mean we spend less; nor does it mean we stop buying things once we have what we need. The whole manufacturing costs less argument has heralded a new world of over-consumption and that, in turn, has created the experience economy.
For example, I was recently astonished to find that a major supermarket chain could send me to the office respectably dressed in a business suit, shirt and tie with spare shirt and tie for an outlay of just £50! This wasnt possible a year ago. I was also surprised that I could stick it all in the washing machine. So convenient and yet I didnt buy it. It wasn't the right experience for me. I dont buy suits in a supermarket. I have been conditioned to buy them in a more staged experience.
Still think we are rational? Our leisure time has become compressed and, despite being stressed, we seem to want more intense experiences. Dont believe me? Look at the cost of weddings these days. Is there any evidence at all of rational thought or logical cause and effect? Is it really logical to blow a fortune just as we start out in married life and then not have a pension?
We can, and do, rationalise just about any purchase we have made on the grounds of its importance to us, to our inner world. That inner world connects with our own unique understanding of symbols, rituals, stories we have heard and things we have seen elsewhere. This inner world is, of course, the world of the arts.
Some retailers are now acutely aware that their performance will be judged in terms of a staged experience. High-end retailers have picked up the idea that the arts has some vital traits and behaviours that might allow them to sell us purchases that are less and less rational simply on the basis of the experience of the buying.
Shops and stores look increasingly like sets and less and less like our own realities. We and our audiences are going to see more and more effort being made to sell to us on the grounds of emotional or design argument particularly in the hyper-competitive world of retail. Brands serve the purpose of breathing life into inanimate objects and we see clever and not-so-clever attempts at this every day, and we as consumers are becoming gourmets at decoding brand communication.
How do skinny budget outfits compete? I maintain the view that great brands are about behaviours rather than hype, about the authentic and the real and not spin. If we say things about ourselves either generically within the performing arts or, more importantly, in our dialogue with our audiences that are not supported in reality we are starting to live on borrowed time. But, when we are delivering an outstanding, intense experience or revealing a symbol or story of significance, we need to get the message across emotionally, intellectually and experientially.
We shouldnt underestimate the overall impact of a visit to a venue or gallery in support of this proposition. It is traditional for arts organisations to target all their efforts at the stage, with limited thought and resource going into the front of house experience. Yet, audiences are not Victorian, they are 21st century, their expectations and desires are different.
The whole visit has to stack up to the brand image we create for ourselves in the context of 21st century Britain. That doesnt have to be some half-baked attempt at Disney or a bland politically correct moment. We need to make sure that all the cues stack up to a single experience. We can, and should, be wise to all the impact of our venues not just the convenient business plan ideas.
Turning the organisation on to a wider view of the service experience requires an underpinning foundation of management that understands that customers are buying expectations and experiences not tickets. Converting that understanding of the experience into precise individual actions is no mean feat. Some retailers just like some venues have started to get on top of it, while others fail miserably.
I recently saw this described as the nano-economics of face-to-face service which I think grasps the tiny build-up of actions into the overall experience. The really successful players know that if the whole team, including contractors, understand their individual role in creating the customer experience then the impact is likely to be more profound.
There are a number of key steps that will help this process become a reality:
- Have a clear, simple emotive vision
- Grasp the current situation: map the actual service experience comparing your intention with the reality
- Map the biggest impacts in the service sequence: remember you have regular customers as well as new ones
- Have a clear plan of improvement a business plan, if you like
- Implement: this is where people very often fail the task, leaving the business plan to fight it out on its own in the filing cabinet
- Monitor and maintain the gain; make sure you reinforce the right stuff in your team. Good people are often neglected simply because they make the mistake of doing their job well. If they are adding to the experience be sure to thank them.
To read more about these arguments, try Experience Economy: Work is theatre and every business a stage by Pine, B.J & Gilmore J. (1999) (ISBN 0-87584-819-2).