The Theme is Dead; Long Live the Theme

There are those who say the theme is dead.  If by theme, you mean a pithy slogan, regardless of its depth or meaning, then we’re definitely in the dead theme camp.  But if you mean meaningful, memorable and actionable elements that support the objectives of an experience, we’ll vote to keep the theme alive.

Pine and Gilmore, in their landmark book, The Experience Economy, stipulate that theming an experience is requisite to success.  They cite numerous examples of successful theming, ranging from American Girl Place in Chicago to the Joie De Vivre chain of hotels. 

These retail and service establishments do bring a special spirit to their businesses through theming.  But how does theming relate to live business experiences?  Too often, it results in a pointed statement, vaguely related to business objectives, splashed on posters, PowerPoint slides, napkins, and other trinkets.  That’s usually because the theme is developed as an afterthought, rather than as a fundamental expression of the experience’s business objectives.

Theming is more effectively derived early on in the planning process and when expressed less obviously.  In fact, it can be especially effective when the “real” theme is implied rather than overtly expressed in the written or spoken word.  Theming is at its very best when it is incorporated throughout the entire business experience – from the moment the intended audience is invited, throughout every touchpoint of the experience.

Understanding the level of audience awareness, their desire to support and participate, their knowledge of how to participate, whether they have the ability to do so, and understanding what reinforcement may be necessary to sustain the mindset are critical factors in appropriate theming. 

Creating the look and feel of an environment alone is not theming.  At its best, the theme should align all aspects of the experience, not just its sets, collateral materials and speech copy.  In other words, the intended audience should not only see and hear thematic elements, but taste, smell and, especially, feel them as well.  The goal is to not only create a unified, coherent environment, but a unified coherent experience, much like the very best hospitality and retail experiences.  To achieve those aims, the entire operation, not merely the creative, production and logisitics staff, must examine every single aspect of the proposed experience.  They must anticipate and visualize how their audience may be best moved to action and understanding. It is only then that theming can support the business objectives at hand.