The Future of Brands: Why Immersion Matters

Marketers and design experts have talked about the power of brand storytelling for a long time, including yours truly. As marketing guru Seth Godin put it: “Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories you tell.” Storytelling has the power to move brands from being transactional to transformational. As a result, every conceivable media channel is clogged with content and stories from brands seeking connection with consumers. But it’s not all attention-getting and inspirational. Nor is it able to suspend the usual human reaction of suspicion or downright disbelief.

What are consumers, aka would-be brand fans, looking for? It’s quite clear that they’re no longer passive and receptive to merely being told a story. And it’s obvious that they’re too sophisticated to be fooled by a glossy story that doesn’t have a meaningful, substantive brand with values behind it. Consumers are looking for immersive experiences. They don’t wish to be told stories; they want to become part of the story. But they only want to be involved with brands in which they can believe. This is especially true for children, teens and tweens, who aren’t into buying stuff, but rather crave experiences. Oh, they’ll buy, but only from the brands in which they become immersed first. And only from those brands that create immersive product and package design that add to the richness of their experiences. Let that truth sink in.

Suspending disbelief through storytelling

The brands that are rising to the top are letting go. These brands have gone beyond asking fans to share stories and images. Beyond integrating consumer-generated content to their own. They’ve moved the needle all the way to giving the consumer control of the brand, inviting them to co-create the story itself. The result is brand immersion which I call the ultimate consumer experience, and it’s what makes fans fall totally in love with the brand. It doesn’t get any better than this.

Immersion goes well beyond brand engagement. Immersive experiences are the result of a compelling story where verbal assets are made visually rich, creating a new world. Visual assets are highly sensory in nature: we can feel the rain, smell the soup cooking in the pot or hear the train in the distance. Visualization has the power to turn fantasy into reality for consumers because it engages the senses in a very real manner. And it’s crucial to the representation of the brand, especially in retail environments.

Not only are we invited into the world created by the brand and given total control, we are allowed to experience it in many dimensions. When people willingly enter into a brand-created world, they have erased the boundaries between marketing storyteller-consumer and illusion-reality. For that to happen, the virtual world created by the brand has to be so realistic and visually stunning that disbelief is suspended. As a result, fans live in what J.R.R. Tolkien, the writer of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, dubbed “the enchanted state”.”

Few brands are as immersive as those in the entertainment industry. Not only do they know how to tell engaging stories, they also know how to leverage the power of digital platforms and every other consumer-facing touch point. Licensed product package design, due to its ability to leverage astonishing, realistic visual imagery of characters, places and time frames, makes the virtual world of the brand tangible and real; it transports consumers into that world and makes them want to buy. By creating engaging experiences in such an immersive manner, brand fans can live in “the enchanted state” at any time of their choosing.

What these property owners intrinsically understand is that consumers who create their own narratives around the brand are compelled to share them. People remember their own stories more vividly than they do that of any brand alone. As they invest more time immersed in the world that the brand has presented and co-create, it delivers powerful human satisfaction on a deep and meaningful level.

Total brand immersion in three dimensions

Creating a world around a brand that’s three-dimensional starts with a story that captivates the heart and dispels suspicion as to its veracity in the brain. When JK Rowling originated her Harry Potter stories, she created a complete and separate world, full of rich characters, storylines and venues. They were written in a unique linguistic manner that was then translated into a stunning visual language. I’m sure that Rowling never dreamed that her books would become movies, games, consumer products and now theme parks. But I’m equally sure that she did know that Harry and his friends’ stories were highly immersive; that when the right opportunities arose to extend the brand, kids would be thrilled to willingly transport themselves into the magical world of Harry Potter. That they would create new stories of their own around the property. And that they’d be eager to buy licensed consumer products as long as the visual design of the products and packaging were able to whisk them into the enchanted state.

No brand understands the magic of immersive branding more than Disney, and the Harry Potter brand has taken a page from Disney, hasn’t it? And so has the Star Wars franchise, as well as numerous other properties that captivate audiences in a powerful manner. Their stories have been co-opted by fans who are literally under their spell and thrall.

Consumer brands can capture consumers’ hearts, too

I know what you’re thinking. That’s fine but these are all entertainment properties, what about consumer product brands? Glad you asked.

And along came Shopkins, bucking almost every trend in the toy business on its way to the top as a global brand. Shopkins was launched in the summer of 2014 by the Australian Moose Toy Company. They aren’t techy toys; they’re plastic miniature figures and play sets packaged in pink and primarily, unabashedly aimed at the girls’ market. In spite of that, Shopkins appeal to boys, as well. The brand is also unapologetically based on consumerism, the mundane and the domestic. The brand tagline: “Once you shop, you can’t stop”” clearly references how consumerism powers Western economies.

By the fall of 2015, 100 million Shopkins characters had been sold worldwide. In an interview for an article last September, Solomon said: “It’s incredible to think Shopkins is only a year old. It’s really taken the world by storm.” The brand also won the prized Girl Toy of The Year Award in 2015. According to a Fortune magazine article published late in January, 2016, Shopkins is the top-selling toy brand in the U.S. “Despite the strength of the film (The Force Awakens) and the many, many toys associated with it, there was just one Star Wars toy on the list of the year’s 10 best sellers (the Sphero app-controlled BB-8 robot, which came in eighth). Instead, the Shopkins toy line, which is phenomenally popular with both boys and girls, topped 2015 toy sales. The 12-pack of the tiny figurines of the anthropomorphized household objects was #1, while the two-pack was the year’s fourth bestseller.”

Paul Solomon, co-CEO of Moose Toys observed: ‘I think the key to success is a great theme. Whether it’s tomato sauce or a donut or a cupcake or a lipstick, these are objects that are recognizable to kids. We were trying to find the most iconic products to turn into Shopkins characters.” The doe-eyed Shopkins characters are cute, fanciful and endearing to kids. They represent the mundane: supermarket staples, cosmetics and fashion items, baby and bakery merchandise; but there’s nothing mundane about how they’re represented in toy and package design that enthrall kids.

Richard Gottlieb, CEO of consulting firm Global Toy Experts, stated: “There’s something about the product that’s extremely appealing – I call it the playground social network…” Products like Shopkins are easy to bring to school because they’re small, so other kids see them, and it spreads. It’s like a virus.” Because new figures are launched yearly, some in limited quantities; because they’re cute and small, they’re highly collectible. So kids love them. Remember the Beanie Babies phenomenon of the 1990’s?

What does all of this have to do with immersion into a Shopkins created world? The brand owner’s dedicated web site welcomes kids to “Shopville”, with engaging backstories of its big-eyed characters so that kids can “meet” them. features videos and cartoon shorts which also appear on the Shopkins World channel on Cartoon WebTV (YouTube). Storylines feature Shopkins characters in the land of Shopville, but that’s not all. Consumers are uploading their own animations as well as toy unboxing videos, bringing attention to Shopkins brand packaging on YouTube, and creating a following among kids worldwide. There’s clearly more than engagement going on here; kids are immersed in the Shopkins world and they are creating their own stories – putting themselves in them as the protagonists with the Shopkins characters as their friends.

Immersive packaging seals the deal.

Shopkins licensed products continue to roll out around the globe and consumer products appear in numerous categories, I expect the immersive magic of the brand to be extended. On its own packaging, the brand uses verbal communication sparingly and wisely. More than anything, verbal branding comes in the form of call-outs reinforcing how many Shopkins characters, including exclusives, come in each playset. And they point out the cool interactive aspects of each set sparking huge sales. For example, the Shopkins Small Mart playset mimics some of the coolest aspects of a supermarket for kids: a shopping cart and checkout counter. For good measure, the set also includes a slide so that the Shopkins characters can be put on the chute on their way down to the sales floor.

Package structure includes die-cuts to increase visibility of the toys in each set. Package design architecture features borders filled with eye-popping color and symbols that kids love (hearts, flowers, candy, cookies, etc.) almost reminiscent of Hasbro’s Candy Land board game. The world of the Shopkins comes alive in highly sensory imagery making kids want to immerse themselves in that world. They can easily put themselves into the scenarios presented and craft their own stories because of the rich visual language created by Shopkins. And they do.

New Shopkins products and packaging must continue to be immersive to keep the brand relevant for kids and to encourage them to create their own stories. For kids, it’s all about choosing to remain in the enchanted state, in the magical land of Shopkins, when so many other brands beckon.

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