What Earth Hour Taught Me About Branding

(Earth Hour happens every March 30th. People like me turn off their lights and gadgets for an hour because they feel super-guilty for leaving them on all the time.)

The single best example of building a brand that I’ve ever seen happened during Earth Hour 2009.

I was on a date with my now-wife, and we were enjoying a romantic dinner at a trendy Ottawa restaurant called Absinthe. (Wonderful place — the dessert menu is to die for.)

We observe Earth Hour every year, and we were a little disappointed when we realized we’d be stuck at a restaurant when the hour started. Restaurants are full of lights, you see, and turning off your lights is like Earth Hour 101.

Anyway, we’re at a small table for two, near the back of the restaurant. Dinner had just ended, and we were ordering desserts. (If you ever go to Absinthe, promise me you’ll get a dessert. They’re fantastic.)

As the clock drew nearer and nearer to 8:30, there was suddenly a good bit of hubbub about the restaurant’s staff. I couldn’t tell exactly what it was, but they were bringing something to each table. At first I thought they might just be bringing patrons their bills, but that couldn’t be right, there were too many at once. Finally they got close enough that we could make out what they’re carrying, and-

Oh. Candles.

They were bringing candles to each table. Not just the tables that had people sitting at them, either. There were candles everywhere; I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many in a room that size. And the waiters were lighting them, too.

As our waitress dropped off an armful of candles at our table (already lit! How did she carry them already lit?) she casually remarked:

“We’re going to turn off the lights for Earth Hour.”

Sure enough, when the clock struck 8:30, off went the lights (or at least so dim as to appear off; I’ll admit I don’t quite remember if they were all the way off or just really, really dim). The restaurant was more or less completely dark, save for the light from probably a few hundred candles.

It was a beautiful sight. From our small table for two, near the back of the restaurant, we could see what seemed like an infinite wave of tiny flames, flickering in all directions. Giant shadows lept across the walls and ceiling; I could hardly believe the transformation.

Our table was no different. By now our dessert had arrived, and we found ourselves sharing probably the best crème brûlée I’ve ever had — by candlelight.

It was absolutely perfect, and it’s one of those memories I wouldn’t trade for the world.

Now, where was I again? Oh, right: Branding.

Building a brand is all about creating remarkable experiences.

Nobody remembers “good”. If your restaurant or your product or your blog is just “good”, it’s not going to get any attention from anybody. The way to build a name for yourself, the way to build a brand, is to give your patrons/users/readers something really special. Something remarkable.

Aside: You could argue here that being “good” for a really long time is a perfectly viable branding strategy. You would be completely right.

Coca-Cola has built their brand on bringing consumers the same really good (but not remarkable) experience hundreds of millions of times. So if you have hundreds of millions of chances to impress your clients or bosses or shareholders, you can make lots of good experiences add up to a remarkable brand. Otherwise…

Let’s look at what Absinthe did to make my Earth Hour 2009 so special.

First, they put in a lot of effort. I know, you’re probably thinking “Dan, all they did was dim the lights. I can do that right now with very little effort.” But let’s really think for a second about everything that had to happen for that night to play out the way it did:

  • Someone had to really believe in this idea, and sell it to the rest of the staff.
  • Someone had to go out and buy like 300 candles.
  • …and get them to the restaurant, and store them, and open all the packaging.
  • Oh, and lighters or matches. Someone remembered those, too.
  • Someone coordinated the timing of the rollout/lighting (because the timing was perfect, and perfect is no accident).
  • Someone planned what to do if a patron complained about the darkness.
  • Someone cleaned up all that wax afterwards.
  • Etc.

I’m not going to say this was some huge, Herculean effort, but it didn’t just happen all by itself. Someone cared enough about making my Earth Hour special to take responsibility for it, and to lead the charge on the big night. This is absolutely essential for a remarkable experience.

And second, they didn’t ask for permission. This is especially clear in the wording our waitress used. “We’re going to turn off the lights”. Not “Do you mind if we turn off the lights?” nor “Sign this waiver so we can turn off the lights”. Can you imagine how lame that would have been?

Remarkable experiences happen on their own terms. Nobody opts-in to being amazed by something.

Yes, this adds risk, and yes, it means the same experience won’t delight everyone. The art of the perfectly-crafted experience lies in how well this risk is assessed, and how well you know your audience.

Absinthe got this exactly right. They knew they could count on their hip clientèle to enjoy the novelty of the experience. They decided that they weren’t risking much by the possibility of alienating a few folks well after the dinner rush. The surprise and lack of control were well thought out, and a key aspect of the overall experience.

Make your own remarkable experiences.

This is the part of the post where I give you some key takeaways you can use right now to improve your brand today.

Sorry. I’ve got nothing.

I don’t worry very much about branding in my day-to-day. That’s going to change a little with the new gig. Working on a product that touches millions of people every day means I have a huge opportunity to impact a major brand.

I’m really excited for this aspect of my job, so I’m going to start thinking about branding a little more. I promise I’ll share what I learn.

In the mean time, what branding advice do you have to share with me?

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