Walk into any Starbucks, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by comfortable, golden brown earth tones. It’ll be warm and smell like fresh coffee. There will probably be some soothing music on in the background — not too loud or distracting, but relaxing.
Now walk into any National Tire and Battery. Despite being an auto repair shop, the lobby and waiting room will be strikingly different. It’ll be white and brightly lit with some bold blue and vibrant yellow highlights. You’ll feel like you’re at a modern, high tech kind of business.
There’s a difference between Starbucks and National Tire and Battery, and it’s not just about the product and services they sell. It’s about how they look, feel and smell. It’s about the whole experience of going into, being and leaving there. We call this environmental branding.
Environmental Branding 101
So, what exactly is environmental branding? Whitney, an Illinois-based firm specializing in architecture and interior design, defines it this way:
Successful environmental branding creates a physical space that effectively embodies a brand and communicates its attributes, personality and key messages. That space may be in retail stores, restaurants, office environments or even at tradeshows. It is accomplished through intentional design of a space’s atmosphere and carefully considers factors such as color, texture and materials, size and smell.
Five Critical Elements of Environmental Branding Success. A branded environment can be considered successful if (1) it’s unique; (2) it’s authentic; (3) it stimulates as many senses as possible; (4) it embodies your organization’s core values and messaging; and (5) it can be replicated in other spaces.
Starbucks strives to communicate a comfortable, homey environment. They want you to feel welcome to come and stay awhile. The decor is carefully picked to generate a warm, human, more organic feeling. It often features large photos of coffee farmers and fields to give you a sense of connection to where your coffee may have originated and a feeling of “helping” the hardworking farmers who grew and harvested your coffee.
Starbucks creates their atmosphere in part through music. They will often play CDs they are promoting and selling, and typically their selections will be trendy, but not too catchy — so you’ll feel connected with current culture yet still able to stay and concentrate on your laptop or a book while you sip a few lattes.
Because they are so good at environmental branding, Starbucks does an excellent job of replicating their experience over and over again even within other completely dissimilar spaces. A great example of this can be found at many highway rest areas. Next time you’re on a road trip, notice how the Starbucks portion of the rest area just feels well … exactly like a Starbucks. Often, there isn’t even a physical wall separating the Starbucks from the other parts of the rest area, but it’s like you’re stepping through an invisible wall as you enter. The branding is good enough that you can easily recognize it from afar as you approach, and you know exactly when you’re there.
Think about that rest area for a moment more. Typically rest areas have a neutral gray or cream-colored scheme, but as soon as you step “into” Starbucks, you’ll be standing on different flooring, and you’ll probably be surrounded by lots of organic, brown earth tones. You’ll step up to a typically black counter to place your order and then again to receive your order.
It’s also not an accident that National Tire and Auto uses blue and yellow highlights on top of mostly white. That combination feels clean and modern and high tech — which matters now that our cars have so many computers in them. And the highlight colors are a bit like racing stripes on a car — suggesting speed and success.
Ever notice how Home Depot is decked out in bright orange? Lowes, on the other hand, is mostly blue. That’s because every similar kind of retailer can’t pick the same primary brand color: it would be too confusing.
So, color choice is just as importantly about differentiating one company from its competitors. As another example, Walmart’s primary color is a conservative blue — a color that feels “safe” to many; whereas Target has gone with a vibrant red that’s full of energy as it tries to be a “new” Walmart and appeal to a younger, hipper generation.
Some businesses will intentionally decorate with colors from their logo; others will pick deliberately different colors to create a strong contrast which makes their logo more pronounced. They might work their logo or elements of their logo or associated brand directly into the environment — such as a logo illuminated onto a floor at an entrance, as a large wall pattern or sewn into an establishment’s carpets.
Texture and Material
Texture and material can play a big role in environmental branding. Think again about Starbucks. It’s full of wood that feels solid and warm and comfortable. But then there is some strategically placed brushed chrome in places to give a modern twist. The little sleeve you put around your too-hot coffee is usually a brown cardboard with a textured surface that you feel beneath your fingers.
At National Tire and Battery, there’s no wood, but there is plenty of smooth, sleek, shiny black and white flooring and open countertops. It’s decorated with modern, black leather furniture and large, stylish black and white photo murals.
Brands can also intentionally choose to use materials to communicate their concern for the environment. For example, they can build with sustainably grown and harvested woods or fibers, used recycled materials to reduce waste or pick low-VOC paints to create better air quality.
Ever go to a big city and notice how many Starbucks there are in close proximity? Wouldn’t it be more efficient to have fewer, larger Starbucks? No, it’s not just Starbucks trying to be more convenient to you the customer by having more locations. It’s just as much about how appealing each store appears.
Think about it: would you be more likely to stop in a larger, mostly empty Starbucks or a smaller, relatively livelier Starbucks? The latter will feel cozier even with just a few people in it, and when it’s packed, we’re naturally drawn in by what seems popular. It’s human nature to want to slow down and stop and see what’s going on and maybe even be part of something whenever we see a bunch of people gathering. We don’t want to feel like we’re missing out.
Other brands intentionally choose large spaces to send a different kind of message. Think about how Apple retail stores in big cities like New York and Chicago are quite spacious relative to how crowded the retail landscape usually is there. With their conspicuously open, modern environment, Apple sends the message that customers have plenty of room to explore and take their time to interact with their cutting-edge technology. Despite being primarily an online service company, Apple recognizes the importance of having a physical presence among their consumers.
Likewise, book sellers like Barnes & Noble often set up their retail stores in large spaces, sometimes multi-level, to give their readers the impression that they have a huge inventory containing all the best books on the planet; they’re sending the message that there is no need to go anywhere else to get your books.
Stroll by an Auntie Annie’s or a Cinnabon in an airport and a mall, and you’ll instantly recognize the smells of each. Whether you love or hate those smells, you’ll often have an instant visceral reaction to the experience you associate with them. And whether those smells are in fact from freshly cooked pretzels and cinnamon buns or are manufactured scents piped out into and around the space doesn’t even matter because either way, they affect many of us at a gut level.
When a brand has done a good job with their environmental branding, it’s easier to recreate the thoughts and feelings associated with that brand over and over again in spaces large and small and all across the country and beyond. It’s why you can feel like you’re in a familiar Barnes and Noble whether you’re in Portland, Oregon or Tampa, Florida.
Another way you can experience environmental branding is by going to a trade show. Somehow every fundamentally identical 10×10 booth space looks and feels completely different. That’s because successful brands have recreated the experiences of their own brands through all the elements we’ve just discussed: color, lighting, materials, texture and smell.
Not Just for the Big Brands or Retailers
Despite the examples we’ve given so far, environmental branding isn’t only for big businesses that need to have a consistent look and feel across many different locations. Small local businesses can use environmental branding to differentiate themselves from big businesses or even other local small businesses.
For example, I don’t go to The Drip Café — my local coffee shop, pictured here, above — because it’s closer or more convenient. I go because it’s a completely different brand experience relative to Starbucks or other local coffee shops. The Drip Café is owned by one local person and employees 15 people in my area. There are local musicians playing music sometimes and artwork from local artists on the walls. Yes, their logo, their menu and their decor don’t feel professionally polished, but the food they serve is largely from local farms, and the coffee is prepared by hand instead of by a machine. And while it takes longer to go there and actually get served via French presses and pour overs, it tastes so much better. Nothing about the experience is anything like their competitor and major brand Starbucks.
How to Use Environmental Branding
So, whether your business is big or small, there is plenty you can do for environmental branding. To be good at environmental branding, you’ll need to integrate and apply a strong understanding of spatial design, graphic design, materials and core branding principles.
To get started, we suggest that sit down with your team of designers and marketers and work on the following five questions:
- Who is our target audience?
- What core values and messages do we want to communicate?
- What kind of atmosphere would best embody our brand?
- What can we do in terms of color, material, texture and size to create an atmosphere that conveys our brand’s uniqueness?
- How much can I invest to create my brand’s physical presence?
If you’re successful at it, the environment you create will eventually become synonymous with your brand. Your customers will come to know and count on the experience of being in your brand’s space.