What hiring my friend to be my personal waiter taught me about creating brand experiences

Creative direction in the making. Waiter on left. Date on right.

One particular summer of my youth I fell head-over-heels. It was my… first 👏 true 👏 love. I was a Sophomore in college and like many college Sophomores I was extremely broke. But when you’re dizzy in love, and also creative, one figures out a way to impress.

Since I couldn’t afford to take my girlfriend out to dinner, I recreated the experience at a local park. Before picking up my date I had prepared dinner, set up a dining table (replete with a water pitcher and, of course, vin rouge) and probably most amazingly, paid my friend $20 to be our waiter during the meal. Occasionally “our waiter” would wander away to have a cigarette behind a tree only to reappear to ask, “And how is your dinner so far this evening?” It was only slightly awkward.

Despite it being a lovely Summer evening in the park, the relationship eventually faded before I transferred to the University of Georgia; however, I am mildly confident that the experience has not been forgotten.

When I think back to the execution that went into creating this endeavor, it really is no different than my approach to developing authentic brand experiences. It’s not the copy, the design, the product, the service being provided… it’s about creating something memorable. It’s about finding a way to create a story that gets retold.

I’m a big believer in gray data. This idea that over time cumulative memorable experiences build brand loyalty and excitement. It’s not a one-and-done campaign that’s going to drive a brand’s long-term success. It’s giving customers a reason to smile when it’s least expected. And the crazy thing is, it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.

During my tenure at Trader Joe’s I learned a lot about creating brand enthusiasm. Part of TJ’s charm is they don’t hard-sell. At all. This is not intellectual property. Ask yourself when you’ve been served up a Trader Joe’s YouTube or Facebook ad. As a retailer they’ve bucked just about every grocery convention stating on their webpage, “we don’t have discounts, coupons, or store memberships”. Instead, they rely very heavily on their pithy Fearless Flyer, the customer experience, and tons and tons and tons of small details that cumulatively build an amazing brand narrative.

While not all retailers equate to Trader Joe’s, there are learnings to be had.

I am constantly encouraging my creative team to find ways to interject memorable experiences into our work. Maybe it’s something hidden on the bottom of a package design… maybe it’s disguising a food description in the form of a Haiku. The important thing is that it’s not simply one formulaic “thing”. It’s delivering consistently delightful experiences over 👏 and 👏 over.

What’s your brand’s equivalent to setting up a table in a park? (But more importantly, who is your waiter? 😂) Think about what you want your customers to walk away with–what you want them to say to friends and family. How you want the story to be retold.

And so, to girlfriend and waiter-friend of yore, wherever ye may be, I hope that 2024 gives you more stories to pass down that are just as memorable (or cringey).

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