The Show Is About To Begin

In whatever marketing arena we find ourselves, we must learn to deliver a performance that brings our customers to their feet.
Roll Up, Roll Up

Ladies and Gentlemen, step right this way, for the show is about to begin.

In a previous feature, ‘Roll Up, Roll Up’, I argued that there truly is no business like show business for the ambitious brand-owner. In whichever marketing arena we find ourselves, we must learn to play to our audience and deliver a performance that brings our customers to their feet. Even when the situation calls for a more subtle presentation, our aim must be to produce a display that moves our customer from one place to another and draws a murmured ‘bravo!’ from their lips.

For people are naturally drawn to a show and there is no greater satisfaction for the buyer than a performance from the seller that speaks powerfully to the needs of the moment and demonstrates a mastery of the finer points of delivery.

Now, there’s a danger that in hearing all this talk of show business you fear that I’m proposing an exaggerated and melodramatic approach that leaves the customer feeling awkward and embarrassed. Not so. I don’t mean to suggest that our performance must be over-the-top in order to win over our audience. Just as theatre can be a riot of colour and sound, it can also be a solitary figure whose demeanour and attitude somehow draws all eyes in the house. Of course, even in these more understated displays, there is often some small exaggeration for effect: a heightening of the shadows around the eyes or greater deliberation in a gesture.

But before the cast can take to the stage to deliver the performance the audience requires, that stage must be skilfully set. There is no point in lighting the scene for a soliloquy if what is to follow is a dancing chorus. Comedy presents very differently to tragedy. We must guide our audience; show them what to expect. Everyone will emerge frustrated if a scene that is to be played to silence, prompts catcalls and cries of ‘She’s behind you’ and ‘Oh no, it’s not’ instead.

That’s An Invitation

So how do we go about setting the stage in our business for the action that follows? Regular readers of The Blend will know that the hospitality sector offers great example to businesses in all sectors on how to play host to your customer. In order to find out more about this vital part of stagecraft, I met with Denise Ryan of Fineline Design, whose job it is to set the scene for guests to a number of hotels, restaurants and bars in Ireland and overseas.

Denise took me to see some of the projects she had recently completed. As she walked me through the spaces, she talked of the importance of making a strong first impression. This begins on the street but really hits home when the visitor steps into the venue itself for the first time. The early encounter is a critical moment and can make or break the experience for the guest. It tells the customer what to expect from their visit and that opening expectation will colour everything that follows.

Not only does it set expectations in terms of how the business will deliver, it also offers the guest a cue as to how they should behave in order to participate in the experience. Setting up a room in one way will prompt the guest to speak in subdued undertones, whilst arranging it in another may signal a more boisterous environment.

Naturally, there’s a common language at work here and it’s the job of the designer to master that language and use it succinctly so that even first-time visitors can follow what’s being said and reply in kind. At one venue, Denise pointed out how she had sought to lay out the space so that each visitor was made to feel special no matter where they sat. In order to create a feeling of intimacy, she had used sheer curtains to divide parts of the room from the others and had furnished large mirrors to prompt a sense of re-discovery. Together, these installations aimed to provide guests with a range of views and to create the impression of a place waiting to be explored. In such a place, the guest can savour the sensation of being close to others and yet somehow in a world of their own.

These are the tricks of the trade but they must be employed with a skilful hand and a keen sense of what they are designed to achieve. Setting the stage for success demands that you know precisely what effect you are looking for. Otherwise, there’s a real danger that you misdirect your audience and set up both sides for an anticlimax.

To Make A Reservation

And so Denise has a lot of work to do before setting the stage for the visitor. She spoke of the importance of taking the lead from her client and being clear as to what type of experience they wish to design for their customers. She finds that people often want to create a place that they themselves would like to visit and she encourages them to think beyond that to define a place that will work for their customers too.

In order to do this, Denise finds it helpful to invite her clients to picture their customers and tell her how they see the customers using the space. She knows that if she can develop a clear sense of how the owner wishes the place to function, then the rest will follow more easily. She asks a lot of questions around how the space will be managed, how it will function on the operations side so that she can create a venue that is to be used rather than simply admired. As Denise puts it, ‘there’s no point in creating service that’s stuffy if you want people to feel comfortable in your place’.

Once she has established what these priorities are, then she can bring her own experience as a customer to bear on the work, before drawing up a plan that uses her professional expertise and know-how and sets out the space in a way that makes for a really great performance.

Waiting To Take You Away

What Denise is describing is what I’ve called elsewhere the ‘rehearsal stage’ of the brand performance, the point when the business owner has the opportunity to outline what they have in mind and the customer can prepare for that performance and decide whether it it’s something they want to choose or not.

When seen in this way, setting the stage is not only a prelude to what will follow; it’s also a key moment in the sale. It plays the same part as the trailer at the cinema, or as the test drive at the motor dealer, and allows the customer to rehearse the purchase and the experience that’s promised. As the guest stands at the threshold of the restaurant, they are offered all sorts of cues as to what they can expect and they will decide to buy or not based on whether the stage is set for a memorable or a forgettable performance.

Whilst the performance itself can exceed or disappoint the expectation, it will always be experienced first in terms of how the scene has been set. This is its starting-point, the moment at which the audience sits back in either wide-eyed anticipation or arms-folded scepticism. Delivering on your brand is almost always easier when you’re playing to a gallery that has positive expectations.

In the same way, the customer will finally review your performance against the expectation that’s been created at the beginning and will record their satisfaction or regret depending on whether that initial promise has been fulfilled or frustrated.

Everything You Need

Setting the stage in this way has another important part to play in the customer experience. Much of the time, the benefits that a brand offers can seem abstract and difficult to appreciate. Preparing for a performance by setting the scene invites both you and your customer to see the brand in a three-dimensional way. Everything seems more real and the brand can be brought to life in a dramatic way. Of course, it’s possible to deliver fabulous food in an unpromising environment but a well-made room whets the appetite for what’s to follow. When it comes, the food itself seems to taste better.

It’s the same for all types of business performance. Despite their occasional protestations to the contrary, our customers mostly buy with their eyes rather than their heads. As they arrive, they are looking for cues, clues as to what they might expect. If they can see from the setting that it’s going to be good, then there will be a buzz of anticipation in the auditorium as the orchestra plays its starting tune, the curtains part and the actor opens her mouth to deliver her first lines.

Ladies and Gentlemen, step right this way for the show is about to begin…

To see for yourself how Denise has set the stage for her customers, visit