An Authentic Experience Is A Branded Experience

When people are surveyed about what they want out of an interaction with the arts, among the top answers are authentic experience and an opportunity to share that experience with family and friends.

Within the last two days I saw two articles that address how many companies are addressing this expectation among consumers.

The first was a story on Slate about how Apple’s Genius bars were developed to answer this emerging desire.

…stores and malls are looking to adopt the holistic, experiential attitude toward retail space that Apple helped pioneer, one that lures customers out of the house with an idea of service that goes far beyond sales. Sephora will put on your makeup. Sur la Table will teach you how to cook. After last week’s TaskRabbit acquisition, it looks like Ikea is about to start assembling your furniture.


…Apple retail head Angela Ahrendts unveiled at the company’s keynote last month in Cupertino, California. “We actually don’t call them stores anymore,” she said. “We call them town squares.” As a metaphor for the tech industry’s appropriation of the public sphere, it seemed a bit on the nose. But it’s a fitting culmination of Johnson’s initial strategy to cloak the exchange of cash in civitas.

If you think recasting an Apple Store as a town square is a cynical corporate attempt to cultivate a relationship with consumers, you may not like reading a piece that appeared today on CityLab that talks about corporate attempts to create a “branded experience.” In the context of the Slate story, Apple either pioneered the idea or was on the leading edge of an emerging trend.

The story primarily talks about branded environments in NYC so the demand for such experiences may not translate to other communities. Though I would suspect the differences are only a matter of time and degree.

I was interested to read the following which makes an argument for why in-person interactions in physical spaces remain important even if they aren’t as convenient.

The current conventional wisdom on retail holds that digital sales cannot reach far enough on their own to build sustainable customer bases, so digital-first brands have migrated toward physical stores, pop-up shops, and other experiential marketing strategies.


The new branded space doesn’t merely satisfy a customer preference for finding products IRL. It opens up a new inflection in retail’s historical role as a venue for urban sociality, spectacle, and leisure.

So while brands strive to enable people to represent their own personal brand, the ubiquity of images of other people’s similarly “authentic” experiences creates a growing sense of dissatisfaction with one’s own. In other words, back before social media expanded our awareness, ignorance was bliss.

What happens when everyone is hunting for unique markers of personality and taste while simultaneously emulating widely popular and algorithmically curated patterns of behavior?

Consumers craving “authentic” experiences tend to build their digital personas by recycling the same kinds of content that populate their own feeds. Especially on Instagram, photos of under-the-radar coffee shops, building interiors, and artful design objects begin to look utterly banal as they aggregate by the thousand. The real world, without any impetus other than the encouragement of the market, has conformed to these aesthetic standards in response.

As they (actually, Alfred Korzybski) say, the map is not the territory. The experience is the experience, not the picture of the experience.

Perhaps one of the challenges arts and cultural organizations will face is that after pouring a lot of thought and energy into wholly revamping the experience they provide, people may still be dissatisfied due to what they value.

But that isn’t new. There has never not been a misalignment between an experience and what is valued by those present. Not everything we do is for everyone. You don’t have to stand for an ovation at the end of the show and clap as hard as the next person.

If you read the CityLab article and shudder at the prospect of having to compete with the expectations created by a Cadillac showroom/lifestyle space  that bills itself as “Public Meeting Place Where Innovators, Creators and the Curious Can Find Inspiration–and one another,” yeah that is simultaneously intimidating and perplexing.

Chances are, that showroom concept isn’t going to be exist outside of NY, LA and Chicago. You know your community and the opportunities that exist to shape experience expectations. It is good to be aware that influences like Cadillac House are likely to seep into your community and influence expectations so stay aware and consider your response.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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