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What is a Branded Environment?

January 3, 2020 - ,
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What is a “branded environment” and why is it important?

Printers and design execution companies throw around tons of insider jargon, but if you’re not in the industry, it can be hard to cut through the weeds. Over the course of the next few months, we’ll be writing up some basic guides to help you speak the language of printers, helping you bridge the gap between what you want and what your printer can do.

A branded environment is precisely what it sounds like—it’s any space that a brand or company designs to reflect, express and promote their brand. Companies use architectural choices, decor, signage, music choices, staff apparel, and even smell to create branded environments. 

Branded environments can be seen in any number of spaces: in pop-up shops supporting a new brands/product launches, in typical retail store or restaurant interiors, in experiential events or museums, or even in nontraditional spaces like a fully-branded subway cars!

Are branded environments new?

Yes, but also: no. Branded environments have been used across industries in different ways for nearly a century, but the idea of consciously studying and creating consistent branded environments—and the widespread use of the term by marketers, printers, brand managers and designers—is fairly recent.

Some of the best examples of early branded environments can be found in early theme parks and themed bars/restaurants! Before modern ideas of branding were being studied and used, these entertainment-centric destinations were doing everything they could to reinforce their brands using (quite literally) every inch of real estate they had.

Case study: Disneyland

Disneyland (founded in 1955) was one of the most ambitious branded environment projects in modern history, and it was wildly successful—it remains one of the most identifiable brand experiences today. In many ways, it set the standard for how we now think of immersive brand experiences. From the start, the logo was prominently displayed throughout the park in locations that lent themselves to recognition and admiration (as well as photo opportunities). Beloved characters like Mickey were featured throughout the park in signage, murals and posters. Live performers acted out shows that stemmed from existing Disney storylines and genial park employees sported stylish, logo-adorned uniforms. The park’s large-scale architectural attractions (like Cinderella’s castle) were replicas of iconic destinations in Disney films. All of this was part of a calculated effort to promote Disney’s brand through the experience of simply visiting the park and walking around; when you’re there, Disney is inescapable. Their branded environment was perfectly designed to reflect everything Walt Disney wanted to express about his company, and to cement certain ideas about the company in visitor’s minds.

Case Study: Themed Restaurants & Cafés

Early themed restaurants are also great examples of early attempts at branding through architecture, decor and signage. Themed cafés started in Paris in the late 1800s, where restaurants like the Café of Death served visitors ale in replica human skulls while they dined off of coffins. America got on board with themed dining/nightlife experiences a few years later, with lavish themed rooftop bars opening in New York offering patrons the chance to dine in the midst of a  fully-functioning farm or a Shakespearean midsummer fairyland.

In the 1920s, Los Angeles famously had a jail-themed restaurant in which diners could eat behind bars, served by faux prisoners; the city’s hotspot 20 years later was a fully-decorated pirate-themed restaurant with a replica “brig,” swashbuckling staged battles, and even a surly “captain” roaming the establishment threatening itinerant crew members with a whip.

The late 70s saw the advent of Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurants—another nearly-Disney-level example of a legendary branded environment, with logos, theme music and decor all saturated with brand logos in support of the brand’s mission.

These early themed restaurants were, whether they knew it or not, leaders in branded environments! The Café of Death used décor, staff uniforms, food presentation and more to reinforce their brand: a spooky, edgy and fun place to dine in turn-of-the-century Paris.

Chuck-E-Cheese’s did the same thing hundreds of years later (albeit in a much more kid-friendly way): they consciously created a narrative about their brand and used animated and animatronic characters throughout their locations, menu and signage design, staff uniforms, activity offerings, and more to reinforce their brand’s position as a leader in kid-friendly dining and entertainment destinations. They created a unified, heavily-branded environment that was unmistakably Chuck-E-Cheese’s—and they’re still benefiting from their long-term investments in branded environments today.