Designing experiences and brands that connect emotionally

I’ve always been fascinated by people and connection. When I was kid every summer we would spend a good portion of it watching the Australian Open on TV. My dad was one of those asian dads, he was a good man but he’d be working most of the time and we didn‘t talk much. One thing that would always unite us was when tennis would come on and we would watch it together as a family. Cheering, commenting and screaming at the TV, there are many fond memories of that time. Many years have passed since those days. Now that I play tennis my connection and appreciation for the game is even dearer. And the skill that of each of the top players exhibits is nothing short of extraordinary. But there is one player who stands out for me who exemplifies all the qualities of a champion and someone who is truly a maestro of the sport.

And that is Roger Federer, for his class and the way he plays the game so effortlessly. There is an artistry and craft in the way he moves and performs. Win or lose I will continue to watch  – I have invested my time and money in supporting him, for his game, his values and what he brings to tennis. He is in short an inspiration to me, so by proxy his victory is a victory for his fans and his loss is also our loss. If you follow a sports team or player you will know what I am talking about. When you watch their matches it is exhilarating because  you are invested in the match. It carries back to the memories of being with family, playing a game with friends, learning the technicalities of the game and realising how insane these top players really are. It’s an inspiration to do better not only in sport but in life.

It’s funny when you break down sports and look at things objectively – putting a little green ball over a net, putting an orange ball through a hoop, kicking a round ball into a net etc. When you break it down to it’s core it’s all very primitive isn’t? Yet here we are with billions of people connected and invested in these teams and sports stars. Because they stand for something bigger – something that involves passion, imagination and the culture of a tribe. It is a way to connect and to feel something, to be inspired and to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. Something that can bring people together. But they are all brand and design systems. A football team is a brand, Roger Federer is a brand, Michael Jordan is a brand, they are all brands that connect and move people. And this psyche and connection has always fascinated me. 

“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

MAYA ANGELOU

 

My other passion is design. Being able to connect and inspire at this level is really reaching the very top of design in my opinion.  So moving beyond just utility we get to connect emotionally and move people. Here are some stories that have made me feel connected to a brand. When I look at each of these stories they are reminders on how if I do my best work perhaps I can make such connections with others as well. 

1. Pixar and Disney – when I was a kid I freaking loved the Lion King. Something about the story spoke deeply to me, an impressionable 9 year old kid. A story about loss, struggle, friendship, love and overcoming adversity. It was heart warming and empowering. I then watched Toy Story and every single one of Pixars releases. And now that I have my own son I would love to watch these classics with him as well and continue to support new movies that come out of the studio. As an adult I read more about Walt Disney and  I love his imagination, tenacity and what he stood for.

“We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.”

WALT DISNEY

Which strengthens the brand narrative for me even further – his commitment and dedication to his craft. And it totally inspires and connects with me to be better in my own line of work. I want to make money not so I can go vanish and retire on a beach but so it can facilitate the potential to realise more ideas and design more interesting things that can have impact. Plus it’s just fucking fun. It sometimes takes years to build this connection. The touch points from when I was a kid, and now the narrative continue to be passed on to my son and also our family. My wife and I have visited Disneyland in both Hong Kong and California and each of those experiences were filled with laughter and joy. And that builds connection and brand equity for us towards Disney and Pixar. Years of experiences accumulated over time to build a connection. The power of a strong brand. 

2. Apple – I was a pretty broke ass kid. It wasn’t until I had my first full time job that I actually had any money. I was first an intern then promoted to junior designer and was introduced to the world of Macs for the first time. I had a iPod but this was different. I never thought of it as anything more than a mere music player. But when I first got introduced to the iMac, it was as if that was the beginning of my professional career and the beginning of my love for design. It was where the toughest moments occurred and it was also there when the best moments occurred. This machine facilitated my ideas and it was beautifully designed. Eventually I wanted a Mac for home as well. So I decided to get a Macbook Pro so I could do work on it. When I finally saved enough it was the most expensive thing I’d ever gotten up until that point in my life. But I remember the feeling of unboxing it, how well designed it was and what the experience was like. It was beautifully designed and beyond that it represented everything that I’d worked hard for so far and all the incredible lessons I learned at that design studio. And not to mention that new Macbook Pro smell. Since that moment I was a fan and have heaps of Apple shit now. I still have that old 2007 Macbook Pro, it’s under my bed and while the keyboard doesn’t really work properly anymore I keep it there for nostalgias sake. But man did I design and coded a lot of flash websites on it. Apple represents simplicity, design, innovation and craftsmanship. Something that connects me to that first Macbook Pro and my design career. Apples values connected with me and represented a time in my life – I’ve made great work and a ton of money using their products. And hence if they continue to make great products I will continue to support them.   

3. Airbnb – I’ve been fortunate enough to do quite a bit of travelling in my 20’s. I guess it’s an Australian thing we like to travel a lot because we’re a huge island in the middle of no where. Isolated and so far away from the rest of the world. When I used to travel I would book hotels all the time. I booked my first Airbnb in 2014 on a trip to Japan and since then have booked most of my trips with them. The interface was beautifully designed and simple to use but beyond that the whole design system really included people as part of the design experience. From talking to the hosts, to finding the key through some hidden door with a lock on it and a serial code (it felt like some fun Indiana Jones shit) and to living like you are more of a local. And finally all of the great and lasting memories that you create on that trip. All of that for me is part of the Airbnb brand and design experience. When you go to the website or app or remember those experiences they come to forefront and you get excited, you feel something, that sense of wonder and adventure starts to creep in as you plan your next trip. My younger brother lives in Japan and it was the first time I’d met him after 1 and half years. And all of those memories and experiences come back to what Airbnb facilitated. The slogan ‘belong anywhere’ may be cheesy to others. But on that trip it was about family and laughter and heaps of wonderful memories being forged. It was a sense of belonging. It was a brand promise that was kept. And at the heart of it the design experience was about people at the centre of the experience.

4. Nintendo – There’s a nostalgia that I have for Nintendo. It reminds me of a time and place during various times of my childhood and adult life. Playing MegaMan when I was 5 on my cousins Nintendo. Playing Pokemon on an emulator because we didn’t have money for a gameboy. Playing Smash Bros., Mario Kart and Mario Party with family and friends. And eventually I got to do work for Nintendo. I was the Creative Director for the Digital Account and did some fun and award winning projects during that time. What you have is a consistent narrative with the brand that you build up over time. The characters and the IP of Nintendo take on their own life. Mario is familiar, he is a friend that you know, or Toad who you use to kick your families ass and use for bragging rights at the dinner table. These are all very human emotions with very personalised memories. Recently Nintendo launched Pokemon Go with Niantic (Alphabet ala Google) and the uptake has been phenomenal, and to see people on the streets everywhere playing it you can see the magnitude of how people feel about these characters. How it can bring people together and get discussions going. If you think about it – it’s walking around catching these digital creatures. But the real value is the discussions you have with other Pokemon players. Getting amped about getting rare Pokemon and taking over gyms. The value comes from the connection of the characters and the nostalgia that Nintendo has encapsulated with their IP. I’ve been playing the last few days and I’m hooked. I want these characters to live on and to survive so I bought coins to support Nintendo. Therese commerce in creating a consistent story over a long period of time. My connection with it was from the 80’s til now. 

So what it is that I am trying to say? In each of these instances I crafted my own story and connection to each of these brands. They built brand equity over time and represented something to me on a personal level. There are clues and lessons that we can take away from this when building brands and designing experiences in our work.  To move beyond utility and to create something that can move people.  

1. Be remarkable – create work/products/experiences that inspire. Pixar, Apple, Roger Federer all exemplify craft and being extraordinary. Become the benchmark an not a follower. 

2. Be consistent – it takes years of consistently delivering value to build brand equity and for people to connect and create their own narrative with you. 

3. Put people at the heart of the design system and the brand experience – how people use and interact with your brand and the memories created are what forms a deeper emotional connection. 

4. The story telling and the narrative – people connect if you build emotions into your narrative – evoke laughter, facilitate nostalgia, create strong brand values that strike a chord, don’t try to speak to everyone start by trying to be speak deeply to one person etc.

These are all things we can design and consider when trying to create something great. Something that can really connect and emotionally touch someone. I hope Verse will get there some day. It’s going to take years but I am investing. A place to share about design, positivity, helping people, learning, happiness, real talk – speaking ones mind, not a afraid to stand out and say fuck it let’s take a look at it from another angle, being an individual, being inclusive where race, religion and differences are celebrated and not used to seperate one another but to connect us and inspire us. My parents came on a boat to Australia via Vietnam and here I am having the privilege to write and share things. When you do your best work and emotionally touch someone with design you’ll know you’ve done something difficult but also something extremely worthwhile. I hope to get there one day and do my best work.