Small Gestures, Big Signals

Last week we looked at how sharing values ensures passion within your organization is amplified. This week we look at the small gestures any company can make that send big signals to the employee base and customers alike.

You don’t have to stand on the fringe to stand out from the crowd. Connecting with customers is about substance, not style— creating a more compelling way to do business, whatever business you’re in. In a competitive environment defined by too much choice and too many look-alike choices, it doesn’t take all that much creativity to be memorable—to be different enough in your marketplace that your customers find you hard to forget. 

More and more companies are beginning to understand how hard it is to compete on the “hard” factors in business: price, quality, and features. That’s why so many companies are thinking big and spending bigger on the “soft” side—designing products that are beautiful to look at, or marketing products with ad campaigns that appeal to the heart rather than the head, surrounding them with symbols and icons that don’t just instill trust but engage the senses. To make their offerings more memorable, companies are working desperately to make them more emotional. Tom Peters has long espoused the mantra of “hard is soft & soft is hard.”

Employees & customers are, literally, looking for a whole lotta love. Forget trademarks. In the heartfelt language of Kevin Roberts, the high-profile CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, the relevant goal is lovemarks—brands that become a “beautiful obsession,” that inspire “loyalty beyond reason” and create a “long-term love affair” with their customers by invoking the elements of “mystery, sensuality, and intimacy.” Love, Roberts argues, “means more than liking a lot. We are not talking affection plus. Love is about a profound sense of attachment.”

David Rockwell, the influential architect and designer, has developed a knack for creating public spaces that strike a chord with the people who visit them—spaces whose design principles are as emotional as they are functional. Rockwell creates landmarks by aspiring to create the architectural equivalent of lovemarks— buildings whose touchstones draw people in rather than just provide somewhere for them to go. 

Since its founding in 1984, the Rockwell Group has completed more than 500 projects, including some of the world’s trendiest restaurants and New York’s hippest hotels, along with entertainment destinations such as the Mohegan Sun casino, Cirque du Soleil’s theater at Disney World, and the Kodak Academy Awards theater in Los Angeles. Rockwell and his colleagues have designed stadiums, libraries, corporate headquarters, museums—even sets for Broadway musicals. What’s more impressive than the range of its assignments, though, is the visual wit and attention to detail that his firm brings to each project. 

That philosophy may explain why so many Rockwell restaurants (50 over the last two decades) not only become hot spots but tend to demonstrate staying power in a famously fickle business. Nobu, the three-star Japanese restaurant created by chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa and designed by Rockwell 20 years ago, has been exported to London, Milan, and Melbourne and has spawned countless imitators around the world. Yet limos and town cars still crowd around the Tribeca original in New York City, and reservations are still nearly impossible to come by without a boldface name. 

Which is why every Rockwell job begins with a deep dive into what he calls the “secret narrative” behind the building. A team spends long periods of time with potential visitors, prospective customers, and other key constituencies. It maps out a set of themes that link the backstory of the space to the lives of its users. The resulting secret narrative guides every subsequent design decision. 

The ideas behind the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore (CHAM) illustrate how Rockwell’s secret narrative creates memorable connections for the people who encounter his buildings. CHAM serves southern Westchester County and the Bronx, whose residents include some of the most medically underserved children in the USA. CHAM’s champion, crusading pediatrician Dr. Irwin Redlener, defined a unique three-part mission for the organization. First, to create not just a hospital but a comprehensive children’s health system for the Bronx. Second, to get rid of all financial barriers between sick kids and world-class treatment. Finally, to incorporate “an agenda beyond healing that would be appropriate, unique, and perhaps even life-changing for this patient population.” To transform that ambitious agenda into a memorable experience, Redlener turned to Rockwell. The design brief was open-ended and ambitious.

Who says hospitals have to be just about X-rays, surgery, and chemotherapy? Rockwell and his colleagues immersed themselves in the experience of hospitalization from the perspective of children, parents, doctors, and nurses. 

That story is woven into the hospital’s design at every level. Each of the CHAM’s seven patient floors has a unique theme and design palette. Step off the elevator on the third-floor unit for ambulatory and outpatient procedures and you can see the idea that “we are star stuff” connected by our common origin in the Big Bang rendered in a colorful etched-glass mural of sea worms, snowflakes, and stars. Travel to the fifth-floor unit dedicated to illnesses of perception (facial disorders, speech, sight) and you’re in an interactive playground dedicated to exploring nonvisual senses. 

Patient rooms don’t have numbers; they feature constellations, animals, or water creatures, depending on the floor’s theme. A teenager might stay in the Big Dipper room, while an infant might stay in the Bumblebee room. Inside each room, the window shades are custom- designed murals depicting the Bronx in different time periods. Scattered about the patient floors are dozens of glass-covered niches displaying works of art by young children from around the city. The child-height exhibits encourage kids to create their own drawings, collages, and sculptures in the fully supplied lounges on each floor. 

Rockwell and his colleagues understood that 70 percent of the kids in the hospital experience it only from their beds. So they designed acoustic ceiling tiles imprinted with hopeful and fun messages. They reinvented the mechanism and tweaked the sound of the privacy curtain that closes around the bed. The attention to detail is truly stunning—and the emotional impact truly memorable. 

What are you doing in your workplace to make even the most beige truly memorable?

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