Design and marketing company BRC Imagination Arts—which put together one of Detroit's hottest attractions, the Ford Rouge Factory Tour—supports the idea that "advertising as an experience" can be an effective addition to traditional promo- tional strategies.
"What is advertising but behavior modification?" asked Bob Rogers, founder and CEO of the Burbank, Calif.-based independent. "It's the transformation of customer attitudes."
BRC has been around since 1981, using robotics, film and interactive media to craft projects for Disneyland, Universal Studios and Knott's Berry Farm, among other amusement attractions. But in recent years, the company's staff of about 70 artists, cultural anthropologists and marketers has turned its attention to corporate branding through on-site factory tours.
Rogers said he perceived the trend away from traditional advertising and realized the work his firm did could be sold as a marketing tool. "Most of today's advertising is an unwelcome distraction, and audiences are simply tuning out," he said. "We really want to immerse them into another world—a dreamlike alpha state."
The company since the late 1990s has completed branding projects for NASA, Volkswagen and General Motors, among others. BRC's $2 million refurbishing of the tour of Ford's historic Rouge factory in Dearborn, Mich., was completed in the spring. "They hired us to redo their visitor experience and focus more on story than selling," said Dan Bock, BRC manager of project development.
But marketing remains the underlying idea, as Rogers pointed out, noting that it doesn't "mean a damn thing if they don't sell trucks."
At the Ford Rouge initiative, potential Ford customers are escorted into a 360-degree theater for a presentation about the making of the F-150 pickup. And visitors can feel the paint shop's mist and the heat of the blast furnaces via special effects, Bock said.
The tour's estimated draw—which Amusement Business pegs at 250,000 to 300,000 visitors per year—"can't compare to the audience reach of a Super Bowl commercial," Rogers said. "But the potential for impact is much higher. The gift shop is the report card."
"Proof is in the numbers," said Wendy Metros, a rep with the attraction's nonprofit partner, The Henry Ford foundation. "We're operating in a sold-out capacity; people are thrilled. And they love watching an F-150 being built."
Business consultant Joe Pine, co-author of The Experience Economy, cited similar efforts like Harley Davidson cafés and DaimlerChrysler's Camp Jeep as other examples of branded experience. "You pay an admission fee to have a wonderful time staged for you, which creates very strong memories," he said.