There’s No Business Like Brand Experience

Reflections on Exhibitions Day 2017

Whenever I get overwhelmed with work or frustrated that I can’t make things happen as quickly as I want (sound familiar?), I pause and ask myself if there’s something I’d rather be doing for a living. Is there an industry that’s more interesting? That touches more people? That affords a better opportunity to effect positive change? The answer, for me, is always “no.” I love this business; I love the chance to connect people in meaningful ways. I love how we can create a space in time for people to collaborate on building experiences, ideas, and memories that last long after that physical space has disappeared.

On June 6-7, we mark Exhibitions Day in Washington, D.C. It’s a chance to advocate for our industry — to make sure that our government representatives understand the huge contribution we make in terms of jobs, local commerce, and the economy at large. (You can find out all about it here.) And consider this — the events we produce spur innovation and healthy competition by showcasing the most innovative thinking in every business sector. In every corner of the world. This naturally creates a platform for international commerce — which means that smart marketers are paying attention to what we do.

Consider the plight of today’s chief marketing officers. They are trying to compete for consumer attention in a marketplace that is in a constant state of flux. Moreover, technology is making it easier for consumers to tune out traditional marketing channels. The ability to engage face-to-face with consumers in an immersive experience is certainly appealing. And that’s an opportunity for those of us who operate in the brand experience channel.

Freeman recently commissioned research to help us better understand how marketers around the world feel about these challenges and opportunities. You can read about our findings here.

Here are a few highlights:

  • Two-thirds of the surveyed marketers agree that brand experience is an effective way to reach their organization’s goals.
  • By and large, marketers felt that brand experience is great for building loyalty.
  • One in three CMOs expect to set aside 21 percent to 50 percent of their budgets for brand experience.

The research also shows that North American marketers lag behind their Asian counterparts in growing brand experience budgets and focusing resources on a more strategic approach to personalized technology. The irony here is that the same technology that helps audiences tune out advertising can help them engage audiences in a more immersive and personal way. From data that helps us fine-tune the experience, to tools that create a platform for collaborative participation (e.g., gamification and second-screen technology), the digital revolution can help us reinvent the world of brand experience. As an industry, we need to be more intentional about promoting the amazing tools and services we can offer.

Not everyone can or should travel to Washington, D.C. to help promote Exhibitions Day. But as proud professionals who make a living in this industry, we can all do our part to raise awareness for what we’ve accomplished, and raise the bar for what we can achieve together. Share a story about why you’re passionate about our industry — or call our attention to something you’ve recently seen that is worth celebrating. Don’t forget to use the #ExhibitionsDay hashtag.

And remember — increasingly, marketers are relying on brand experiences to create connections that resonate deeply with their audiences. There’s never been a more exciting or important time to do what we do. The work can be challenging, but I can’t imagine doing anything more worthwhile.

CTA callout: For more on what global marketers are saying about the importance of brand experience, how it impacts their audiences, and more, download Brand Experience: A New Era in Marketing.

Why We Make it Personal


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What customer experience pros can learn from the airlines

{A Note to Readers: This is another in a series of guest blogs focused on Customer Experience from the amazing Katy Wild. Working with Katy, I can always expect to learn something; I trust you will, too. ~ bph}

In 2003, when we surveyed our Freeman expo customers for the very first time, the results were fairly shocking. Although we received some very positive comments, the overall feedback was that Freeman was the “best of a bad lot” – meaning we were the most favored of the general contractors, but we had a lot of work to do. This input proved useful as we began implementing a defined customer experience program that focused on our service vision and standards. Later we built on this with the creation of our True Blue House, which highlighted our vision, purpose, pillars and values. What a change we saw in our culture. And now our focus is on how each of us can Make It PersonalSM. Is this just a marketing slogan? No, it’s culturally who we are.

Look at the current airline industry: United touts, “Fly the Friendly Skies;” Southwest has, “You’re Now Free to Move about the Country;” American Airlines says there is, “Something Special in the Air;” and Jet Blue declares, “You Above All.” But in a recent Consumer Reports article, “Secrets to Stress-Free Flying”, it’s all about the rigors of flying today – coach seats measure 17 inches wide, down from 18.5 inches, and distance between seats has been reduced one to five inches since 1985. These changes, combined with weather-delayed flights, mechanical failures, more hidden fees and fewer refreshment options have made it almost impossible for airlines to live up to their slogans.

In a recent blog, Anne Handley reported experiencing one of those dreaded multiple-hour delays; she was expecting the worst as she headed to the gate for her Jet Blue flight. Instead, when she arrived, she discovered snacks and bottles of water set out by a Jet Blue agent for the stranded passengers. And the personal attention didn’t stop there; this same agent began playing a trivia game over the sound system with those waiting in the gate area, and when someone guessed the right answer, she rewarded them with a pair of headphones, blanket, or other “perk.” Two hours later, when it was time to board, the winner of the trivia game was allowed to board first – with lots of cheers! That night “You Above All” had an entirely new meaning to the passengers, I’m sure.

Freeman employees – and all of us in service industries – have opportunities to Make it PersonalSM, and memorable, for the people we work with every day! Let’s show our customers, and our competitors, that it’s more than a marketing slogan, it’s something we do by design.

~ Katy Wild

Time is the currency of brand experience

Why technology isn’t the (only) answer

When we consider the changes shaping our future, it’s natural to default to discussions about nascent technology. That’s an important factor, but it can distract us from the real point. I’m old enough to remember when the fax machine was the “it” time-saving equipment. Instead of waiting to mail or hand-deliver documents, we could send them instantly to customers to get input and approval. We thought our troubles were over. But instead of being able to bank that “saved” time, we found that the new technology just helped compress our deadlines and increase the pressure to deliver instant results.

Tomorrow’s tech breakthroughs will no doubt bring new levels of flexibility, speed, accuracy and variety to our work. But if we know anything about the future – no matter how radical or unexpected the disruptions are – people are not likely to feel they have more time to waste. If anything, time will be increasingly precious. So, the question becomes, what can we offer consumers that they value more than their own time? Can we help them actually save time by getting to a decision, a connection, a transaction or an understanding more quickly?

The brand experiences we design and produce will continue to have major, positive economic and social impact. Our conferences, exhibitions and special events should still support the transfer of knowledge through certification classes, through lectures and panels (although these may be virtual), and as importantly, through networking opportunities.  Brand experiences in the future will continue to promote commerce. But today, and going forward, we must recognize that busy people don’t have time for everything they want to do; we must demonstrate good value.

In this sense, time is the currency of brand experience. If I spend my valuable time with you – if I invest precious minutes and hours with the experience you offer instead of working, eating, sleeping, or enjoying my family – I expect something in return. I expect a lot.

At Freeman, we believe in the unlimited potential of brand experiences to engage an individual’s five senses in a personal way. This commitment to make it personal is another way of talking about relevance. We think of this as return on interest – the value participants get in exchange for taking time to engage with us. This means we must design experiences that:

  • Offer immersive, personalized experiences;
  • Connect people;
  • Streamline the decision journey;
  • And inspire and motivate participants.

When we do these things to make the experience worthwhile, we build our brand equity, honor our commitments and help build a sustainable, successful future.

Preparing for the Future – Part Two


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Design the future you want to see

In my Preparing for the Future – Part  One blog, I referenced my participation in a UFI Global CEO Summit that explored the sustainability of the exhibitions industry. This blog picks up with the need to adopt a design-thinking approach to planning for the future.

Design forward.

Bruce Mau – designer, author, visionary and Freeman’s Chief Design Officer – has taught us the value of looking at events the way a designer does. He says, “We need to design forward, because when we live and work in a world of constant forward momentum, standing still is going backwards. What does not evolve, dies.” Our attendees are going forward. Every year they arrive at our shows with a new set of expectations. They want to see new technology, new ideas, and new applications. If we don’t design forward we are going to be left behind. Without innovation, we are destined for the boneyard.

Define what beautiful looks like.

No matter how many anniversaries a show or convention is celebrating, the planners need to look at it objectively and consider the opportunity to add more value. Examine what worked and what didn’t – and articulate a vision for what the show could ultimately offer. Remember to be intentional about metrics, and design-in a plan to measure success in a meaningful way that helps you design it better next time.

We call this “defining what Beautiful looks like.” What will it take to ensure that each stakeholder in the event is going to achieve their objectives? What about the super stakeholders – the anchor exhibitors who have invested in the show and have put their own brand equity at stake? And don’t forget the other audiences: press, attendees, and the host city. As planners and strategists, we must define what success means to each of them – what beautiful looks like for every distinct audience group – and then design a plan that takes us from here… to there. If we always design for the gap, we can achieve continuous improvement (and avoid the death spiral) while remaining relevant even as audience needs change. Revisit the plan every year – wash, rinse, repeat.

Break through the noise.

Once we commit to the habit of continuous improvement, we can seize the opportunity to innovate. Bruce Mau urges us to “break through the noise.” Many things are competing for the attention of our intended audiences – not just other shows and other media channels, but other demands on their time. We live and work amidst a cultural hubbub that obscures the messages we are trying to put out there. We can try to outshout the other guys. Or we can focus our resources in a way that helps us rise above the din. This is the sweet spot – the place where you find the money to do new things and still protect your margins. When we strive to make the experience personal, we help participants tune out the white noise and fully engage with us.

Preparing for the Future – Part One

Ensure a viable future by being the best we can be today.

In February, at the UFI Global CEO Summit, I was a panelist on a session that explored the sustainability of the exhibitions industry and what we should be doing to prepare for the future. Frankly, it’s a conversation I have almost every day with future-focused clients. Here are a few key considerations.

Treat every Brand Experience (a.k.a., event, expo and conference) as if it’s the first one.

Everyone knows that you have one chance to make a great first impression. But it only takes one “meh” show to keep people away forever. That’s why we must plan each brand experience to deliver ultimate value to the various stakeholders – the organizers, the host city, the sponsors and of course, the participants. Consider their individual needs. Ask, how can we exponentially increase the value that the brand experience medium provides each group?

Be a brand/community manager, not a margin manager.

Unfortunately, the very group that should be advocating for added value in the exhibitions industry – the individuals who should be brand managers for their events – are under pressure to behave like margin managers. (And I am not saying that margins are not important – we all know they are a reality.) There’s a huge temptation to just push the “same-as-last-year” button: it’s quicker, it requires less up-front work and therefore creates the illusion of saving money. But this misguided focus on minding the margins has caused a devaluation of net-new content and undermined the relevance of experiential marketing as a medium.  How much better to invest in the development of new solutions to share with event participants – which will give you both eternal youth and good margins.

New content is essential to sustained relevance.  

After more than 25 years in this industry, I have a lens into the world of “net new content.” When I started out working in expositions, there was a huge emphasis on the creation of original content. That was the draw. That’s what made us relevant. Over the last decade, we’ve seen content continuously defunded. Print has been deprioritized (for obvious reasons), and even some digital assets have been trimmed from budgets.  Event planners are forced to rely on exhibitor boards and committees that bring repurposed content. When conferences and shows become nothing more than content curators, it can begin a death spiral. Attendees discover that they can more easily and effectively find what they want for themselves, and the event becomes superfluous.

Don’t confuse short-term activities with long-term strategic, measurable action.

Another thing that threatens the viability of the expositions industry is the tendency we all have to pursue short-term activities instead of beginning the more challenging, long-term strategic action required to keep our brands relevant.  For example, we obsess about who will speak at our General Session and never stop to consider whether a General Session with wall-to-wall talking heads is even the right thing to do. Or we jam new technology into our conference without understanding what we want it to accomplish. We collect data, but we don’t use it. We fail to learn what works and what doesn’t, because we don’t design with a specific outcome in mind; we fail to design metrics into the execution. There is no substitute for strategy.

In my next blog, I’ll pick up with this thought, and discuss how a design-thinking approach can help any organization prepare for the future. 

The Wisdom of Patience

Leadership is understanding when to force change and when to let it come to you. 

Guy Kawasaki is quoted as saying, “Patience is the art of concealing your impatience.” As a leader, I need to work on this, as I suspect most of us do.

When we are fired up by a plan to transform our company, disrupt the industry, and delight our customers, patience is hard to come by. In fact, if the change is that important, we owe it to our organization to make it happen as quickly as possible, right?

Not always. Often, the most worthwhile idea is the one that you just can’t force; you must let it come to you.

Gardeners get this. They till the soil, plant the seeds, and nurture the plants so that they can enjoy the best tasting fruits and vegetables when the season is right. Hot-house plants, picked before they are ripe, can be forced to grow year-round, but flavor-wise, they don’t measure up.

We need to nurture new ideas with the same thoughtfulness. As a leader, it’s your job to know when to force a change and when to let it come to you. Ask yourself what a speedy execution gives you…and what it costs. If the price of expediting change is strictly a matter of dedicating more resources to make it happen, and you’re willing to make the investment, go for it. But if the mission requires changing the hearts and minds of the very people who will make it succeed or fail, exercise some patience. Once your people recognize the value of a new idea that involves change, they will bring their ideas and energy to the solution. But until they get it, and embrace it, they will just keep going through empty motions, certain the idea will fail and ensuring that outcome.

“Workforce math” dictates that 10 people, working for one day, can sometimes achieve what one person can do in 10 days. But nine women can’t have a baby in one month. Some things – things worth waiting for – can’t be rushed.

Rocks vs. Boulders: Clearing the Road to Success


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Because we live in times of exponential change, many business executives face the task of leading strategic organizational transformations. The best of these leaders are able to articulate a clear vision of what success looks like – spelling out the guiding tenets, strategic imperatives and value creators required to get there. But unfortunately, too many still cling to a tried-and-true, operationally-focused management style; they think in terms of activities and check lists, instead of goals and strategic action. The only question that matters, as my friend Albert Chew says, is “What is required to make it work?”

I refer to this as a “rocks vs. boulders” mentality. The transformation of an organization – its road to the future – cannot be achieved with a business-as-usual approach.  Certainly, success with any goal requires some basic work. If you’re building a road, it helps to clear out all the rocks in your path. But that really isn’t progress – it just feels like it. If I’m the foreman on a road crew that’s designing and building an amazing highway to the future, no one cares how many buckets of rocks I’ve moved today, or my plan to move more rocks the next day. The team needs to know where the road is leading, what we’re going to do about the boulders blocking our way, and the metrics we’ll use to know if we are on track. People want to understand what benefits they can expect when each of those boulders is removed. They want to embrace a shared vision of what beautiful looks like. That’s the work that matters. That’s where your focus needs to be.

Whether you are trying to transform a small workgroup, a corporate division or an entire organization, be strategic about how you measure your success. It can be very satisfying to rip through a long to-do list; it may even look good in your report. But unless your actions are moving the boulders, and advancing the true opportunity, it’s wasted motion. Concentrate on big outcomes that are aligned behind your strategic imperatives. Invest your time and talent in creating true value.

The only road worth building is the one that leads to a successful, sustainable future. That’s taking the high road.

The Difference Between Managing and Leading



Companies need both great managers and great leaders

Which describes you best

A.  I get great satisfaction by checking things off my list and accomplishing tasks in a measurable way. If I can’t see that progress is being made, I’m restless and will poke around to get things moving again. I am good at supervising other people in a way that ensures mutual success. I know how to manage for outcomes, focusing on the details that matter. When I’m in the zone, everything goes like clockwork.

B.  I am a big-picture person. I can articulate a clear vision, purpose and strategy and inspire other people to execute against a plan that describes “what beautiful looks like.” I am usually running too fast to spell out the tactical details. Fortunately, I have surrounded myself with great lieutenants who, if they know where we want to go, can be trusted to keep the trains on track and running on schedule.

If description A fits you best, you are probably a great manager. And if B sounds more like your modus operandi, you are probably a true leader. The thing is, successful companies need both. And it’s important to have enough self-awareness to understand which you are and what you aspire to be as your career unfolds. Most of us are better at one than another. And it is almost impossible to do both well at the same time. Managers and leaders use different skill sets, so it’s important to know where you are happiest and most effective.

Many leaders start out as managers and then are promoted into positions of leadership. But it can be very hard for a good manager to let go of the details and shift focus. This was my own experience early in my career. I’d been a very hands-on COO who managed several department heads and enjoyed watching our sales numbers grow. When I was promoted to CEO, I found that I enjoyed articulating a vision and strategy for the company – but resisted delegating the details to my managers. It meant letting go of what I was good at and trusting that the people would follow – and act on – my lead. A few years later, when I joined a start-up company and was once again in a position of supervising the work of others, it was even harder to switch back to a manager mode. I knew how to sketch out the big picture, but had to relearn the knack of filling in the details to make that picture a reality.

The question we each need to ask ourselves is, where do I do my best work? Where am I happiest?

If you desire a long and successful career as a great manager – which is no small goal – align yourself with great leaders and push their comet into the rarefied atmosphere of success. Take care of the details, and you’ll be taken care of.

If you are a manager who aspires to be a true leader, you need to be realistic about where you are in your career and set different goals. Surround yourself with the right mix of people who complement your skills. Hire great managers who can execute your vision and then teach yourself to let go of the details. Understanding the difference between being a manager and a leader is the first step to being the best you can be – whichever one that is.

Serve AND Protect Your Customer

Looking out for the customer’s best interest is always best.

{A Note to Readers: This is another in a series of guest blogs focused on Customer Experience from the amazing Katy Wild. Working with Katy, I can always expect to learn something; I trust you will, too. ~ bph}

You hear it everywhere – in the news, from executives, your supervisor, from well-known business gurus – serving your customer is the key to company success. But you don’t often hear that there is a responsibility to “protect” customers, which can also solidify that relationship.


The team at our customer support center reviews orders to ensure that customers don’t order a 10’x10′ carpet for a 10’x20′ space, or a 42″ high table with low chairs. Our audio-visual experts take pride in recommending a different technology or software to a customer wanting a specific “wow” reaction. Stepping in with these actions serves the customer well by providing what they need – but also protects the customer from unwanted surprises and disappointments.

I observed this on a different level recently in a store in my neighborhood specializing in shipping packages. I was there to return a package and walked right up to one of the counters where the store manager greeted me warmly. The second counter was only a few feet away and was occupied by a customer that was obviously not having a good day.

He was loudly broadcasting to the clerk about his dissatisfaction with a utility company. I didn’t get the complete story, thankfully, but the more the clerk was trying to help him with his request to send a certified letter, the more agitated the customer became. The store manager quietly apologized to me for the situation and continued to process my package.

But when the clerk gave the upset customer the price for his transaction, the volume became louder, laced with colorful language, which turned to anger. Seeing the escalation, and how uncomfortable it was becoming for customers who had walked in and were being subjected to this exchange, the store manager excused himself from me and did something remarkable. He apologized to the upset individual, said he was sorry that they were not able to provide what he needed, but if there was something else they could do for him in the future, they would love for him to return to the store for assistance.

In a flash, the customer was taken aback and didn’t really know what to say but “Okay” – and left the store with no further outbursts. That manager protected the customer by allowing him to save face in a heated moment by offering to serve him “better” at a later date, protected his employee from further abuse, and protected his customers from feeling trapped in a rather hostile environment. No small feat, and his actions were most definitely noticed and appreciated.

Want to keep your customers coming back for more? Continue to serve your customers with your best efforts, but make it personal by protecting them as well.

Primary Team vs. Secondary Team


Loyalty, leadership, and understanding your role.

If you are in a leadership position, it’s important that you know who is on your Primary Team and who is on your Secondary Team. It may not be what you think. The people who report to you – the ones you lead every day, who rely on you for direction and inspiration – are on your Secondary Team. Your Primary Team is made up of the colleagues with whom you lead your organization, business unit or department – the people who share responsibility for defining the vision and setting the strategies that will drive success. This isn’t a loyalty issue – it’s a leadership issue. It’s not about hierarchy – it’s about how you handle yourself. Here are a couple of analogies.


Ideally, the parents of young children function as joint members of the Primary Team. Even though they play with their children – build tents out of blankets, hold tea parties for stuffed animals, and just get silly sometimes – they understand their interdependent roles. Good parents know that someone must announce bedtime, enforce hygiene rituals and make sure homework is completed. It’s their job. When parents don’t present a unified front, but try to curry favor with their kids by blaming the stricter parent, the consequences are never good.

Likewise, if you are the manager of a baseball team, you need to coach your players to deliver their personal best in a way that benefits the entire team. That’s how championships are won. As the manager, it’s essential that your team respects you and your decisions. If they like you, that’s a bonus.  But the players are always your Secondary Team. The Primary Team is the front office – the General Manager, Owner and board. If, as the team manager, you complain about “those guys” in the front office, you’re undermining confidence in the organization. Your players need to see leadership, not dissension.

That’s how it works in any other enterprise. Most of us in leadership positions have had to work our way up through the ranks; we naturally have empathy for those who report to us. The temptation, however, especially when building a new group, is to try to win the confidence of our team by filling them in on everything that happens at a leadership level – with the Primary team. Even things that should remain private, like disagreements about goals and strategies.

Spreading rancor, or simply playing the “us vs. them” angle, ultimately erodes faith in the vision, introduces doubt about the strategy to win, and undercuts the foundation of trust you need from both teams. This inevitably leads to instability as roles and abilities are questioned. The result is two demoralized teams – Primary and Secondary – and damaged trust all the way around.

If you ever feel tempted to complain to your direct reports in this way, it’s probably a sign that you need to take the discussion to your Primary team and resolve some issues. Get clarity around the desired outcomes – the things that really matter. Your Secondary Team doesn’t need the blow-by-blow. They just need to know where you want to go, the wins the team needs to make along the way, and what it will look like when they arrive there, together. That’s leadership.