National Geographic – A Great Brand Experience?
The greatest brands have high awareness, a clear and distinctive image, an ability to evoke a strong rational and emotional bond with audiences, stretch into new markets as well as change with the times. With the opening of its new London store, The National Geographic Society set a new high standard for great brand experiences.
The National Geographic Society
It all started in 1888 when 33 explorers and scientists gathered to form the National Geographic Society ‘for the increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge’. Over the years, the Society has supported many expeditions and research projects including polar and undersea expeditions, studies of animals, such as Dian Fossey’s study of mountain gorillas. It has also enabled discoveries such as the wreck of the Titanic (Robert Ballard) and the man-like Zinjanthropus in Tanzania (Louis Leakey).
The first brand extension, National Geographic magazine appeared in 1888. Then with its articles on geography, science, world history and current events, dramatic photographs from around the world, and trademarked yellow border, it became an icon of our times. Also a coffee table essential for the chattering classes.
In June 1985, National Geographic chose a close-up of an ‘Afghan girl’ as the cover photo for an article on the refugee crisis in Afghanistan.
Photographed by Steve McCurry, the girl had sea green eyes striped with blue and yellow. She peered with a mixture of bitterness and courage from within a tattered burgundy scarf. As a result her picture touched the souls of millions.
Emergence of a media brand
In 1964, the brand extended onto television with stories of adventure and science. In turn, it gave fame to marine explorer and ecologist Jacques Cousteau and his adventures on board Calypso. The first TV channel then followed in 1997. Then in 2007, National Geographic created a global media group comprising all of its magazine, book publishing, television, film, music, radio, digital and maps units.
The new National Geographic store
Together with franchise partner, Worldwide Retail Store, National Geographic opened a store in Regent Street in November 2008. It is a living extension of the brand and a fantastic sensory experience.
On walking in you are greeted by a staff member from one of the many nations represented in the store. To the right are magazines and videos, all with the iconic yellow border, perfectly displayed in a small pagoda-like structure. Beyond is a café with rustic tables and chairs. It is a great place to chat and enjoy a drink and pastry or pincho created by the fabulous Spanish chef.
An artistic experience
All is interposed with state of the art interactive screens and video walls bringing HD quality pictures from around the world up close and real. After hours, the merchandise then packs away and the room becomes a lecture theatre.
Inside the door are a series of horse sculptures carefully crafted from driftwood. Beyond are rows of hanging prints taken by National Geographic photographers. Also a market-place brimming with hand-crafted furnishings and artefacts from all over the world.
And lots of practical stuff
In the basement you’ll find clothing for the great outdoors as well as the most fashion conscious. Also a cold chamber to test the weather-proofing abilities of the outerwear. This includes a wind turbine, block of ice, thermal imaging camera and visual display to add dramatic effect. The shirts are priced at £119 therefore demonstrating the premium that great brands command.
Finally, on the top floor beautifully polished wooden desks adorned with glowing globes signal this is where to book your expedition (or holiday). In the nearby technology department the latest camera and optical equipment is showcased in sturdy steel cases. Dressed in their khaki safari gear, staff are unobtrusive yet close to hand. For example, to advise on what’s best to see the stars or (photographically) shoot beasts in the bush. All that seems missing is a Masai warrior or lion on the loose…… but then again, did I really look everywhere?
While many great brand experiences evolved by accident, what’s critical is management vision and conviction to push the boundaries. Also rigorous attention to detail to inspire and deliver consistently through all activities. As with all great brand experiences you should see, hear, think and feel the quality, value and difference.
Sadly the London store closed in 2017. Thus, reading between the lines, we presume the high costs of a Regent Street venue, and associated high costs of merchandise, were insufficient to keep the business in the black. And/or alternatively management judged there were greater returns elsewhere. Nevertheless, even without the London store, National Geographic remains a great brand experience, and great brand story! The demise of the London store is our loss.
Photo credits: Afghan girl by Steve McCurry, other photos of the National Geographic Store © Guy Tomlinson 2009.