Christian Lachel of BRC Imagination Arts: “Extreme personalization”

Extreme personalization. We’re discovering that people will pay a lot of money for a personalized experience that provides something distinctive and memorable. An example is a family meal catered in a way that combines the tactile and the virtual. You order the gourmet meal program. The sophisticated ingredients arrive at your home. At the given […]

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Extreme personalization. We’re discovering that people will pay a lot of money for a personalized experience that provides something distinctive and memorable. An example is a family meal catered in a way that combines the tactile and the virtual. You order the gourmet meal program. The sophisticated ingredients arrive at your home. At the given time, you dial into the personal channel of the master chef, who works with you to prepare the meal in your own kitchen. (This is a real chef, in real time — nothing pre-recorded). You not only have the pleasure of preparing a delightful meal for family and friends, you learn how to take your own cooking skills to the next level with the hands-on expertise of a world-class chef.

As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christian Lachel, Executive Creative Director and Vice President, BRC Imagination Arts. He is a globally recognized creative and experience marketing visionary. As the Executive Creative Director and Vice President at BRC Imagination Arts, he has spent over two decades developing master strategies, revenue and operations plans, and creative storytelling approaches for award-winning brand homes, cultural attractions, accredited museums, city tours, and world expo pavilions that excite audiences around the world and deepen customer loyalty.

Some of Christian’s notable projects include Jameson Distillery Bow St., Absolut Home, Guinness Storehouse, The Heineken Experience, Ford Rouge Factory Tour, The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and “Story Garden” by AMOREPACIFIC.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

In August 2001, I was working on the Ford Rouge redevelopment project with Bill Ford Jr. and senior leadership at Ford. Bill was using the innovative architectural firm headed by Bill McDonough that was pioneering “cradle-to-cradle” design. McDonough was hosting a fishing retreat in Iceland, and Ford leadership was invited. However, the leadership team had to back out at the last second, and Bill McDonough was kind enough to invite me to join him as part of the Rouge team and other global leaders in sustainability. We spent a week in North East Iceland at a fishing lodge. We’d fish all day, tagging and releasing for the North Atlantic Salmon Fund ( In the evenings, we’d discuss how we could change the world.

This week changed my life. I met so many great leaders and thinkers from companies like Nike, BASF, Herman Miller and others. This was early in my career: I was just figuring out how to be a leader. These conversations changed my whole way of thinking. I discovered the importance of thinking beyond my job, my company and the task in front of me. These leaders thought in terms of making the world a better, more sustainable place for everyone. They thought beyond their own lives, imagining the impact of their work for generations into the future.

As a leader of a human experience company, I discovered the importance of asking the biggest, most ambitious questions about what we do and how our work influences the world. I returned to Los Angeles, then headed back to Dearborn ten days later for a project review. I was at Ford Motor Company headquarters on 9/11 giving my presentation when the first plane hit that tower. I vowed in that moment to use what I’d just learned to amplify BRC’s force as a “purpose brand” that tells stories to bring people together and create a more peaceful, sustainable and hopeful world.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

When I was first starting at BRC, I found myself alone (or so I thought) at the office during a holiday weekend in December. The phone rang. It was Whitney, the daughter of Bob Rogers, looking for Bob. I swallowed hard. I’d never even met Bob (the Founder of BRC), but I told his daughter I’d look for him. I wandered the studio until I came to an office where two people were enjoying a holiday libation. “Ummm…does anybody know where I can find Bob Rogers?” One of these men looked at me for a long “who the hell is this guy” moment and said, “I’m Bob Rogers.” He picked up the phone and I slunk back to my drafting table. The other fellow, BRC Vice President George Wiktor followed me and said, “Nice work, not knowing who the boss is.” We got it sorted out, and I didn’t get fired!

In fact, when I became a Vice President myself Bob and I had a laugh over this, and he said he learned a lesson. “The company was growing faster than I thought, and I wasn’t paying attention. From then on, I paid attention and made sure I knew everyone on every team.” I’ve learned that same lesson: meet everyone, include everyone, and make it point of pride to really know the great people we are bringing on to our projects.

Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

One of the things I love best about BRC is that we’re always working on new, exciting projects in a variety of areas. For example, we’re helping to build the future of stadium tours by creating a new tour for the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium. We’re helping the Raiders burnish their awesome brand by using diverse media in innovative ways that will help them create a number of new revenue streams.

We’re also reinventing distillery tours for the next generation of Scottish tourists with our Destination Scotland project. These are projects that will enhance Scotch tourism, help local communities thrive, delight visitors and achieve a new level of sustainable design.

For the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, we’re creating an immersive narrative presentation called “Fueled by Passion” for their new “Driven to Win: Racing In America” exhibit. They asked us to make their amazing collection of racing vehicles come alive in the imagination of guests. I’m happy and proud of what we’ve done, and I’m pretty sure guests will be thrilled.

We have other projects too, of course. BRC is a human experience company. All our projects across every subject — football, whisky, racing — have one thing in common: they’re all about people pushing the limits to feel what mythologist Joseph Campbell called “the rapture of being alive.” We want guests to feel that rapture, and to walk out of our tours, presentations and exhibits feeling inspired and empowered.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Of course, it’s vital to find balance in your life between work and family, but the real way to avoid burn out is simple: find work you love and put everything you’ve got into making that work a transformative experience. In other words, do work that matters.

At BRC, we’re very selective about the work we do. If we don’t believe we’re the right fit for a project, we turn it down. We work with great clients on breakthrough projects that are fueled by passion. Every day brings new, interesting challenges, with original, innovative solutions, and we have an incredible amount of fun. Our BRC teams emphasize not just expertise but camaraderie and collaboration.

One of the greatest challenges of any project is education: that is, taking the client on the necessary journey of discovering how best to reach guests at the level of the human heart. Our projects have so many moving parts — feasibility, storytelling, architecture and design, graphics, wayfinding, hospitality, and branding — and all the parts have to work together with such precision that all our visitors experience is the magic.

The opposite of “burnout” is “peak experience.” Each project we complete has three peak experiences at the end. First, there’s the moment when the finished project is revealed to the client team, staff and guides, where they see what we’ve built for them. We are always thrilled that they are so thrilled. The second moment is when the client leadership team and the corporate VIPs see what we’ve done. They see that we’ve kept every promise and delivered something beyond their expectations. Finally, the biggest thrill of all: Opening Day, when the public gets to see what we’ve done. Oh, man: the smiles, the laughter, the gratitude the online reviews, the crowds. Every twenty-hour day and working weekend is forgotten. I feel exhilarated, not burned out.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I will always be grateful to my mentor, friend and colleague Bob Rogers for giving me a chance to work at BRC Imagination Arts and rise from artist to Vice President and Executive Creative Director. But the one who made the biggest difference for me — the one who opened the door to a new life beyond my imagination — is David Chu, a Professor at a community college I attended outside of Chicago.

I’d gone into Naval Special Warfare Training (BUD/S) — the Navy Seals — hoping to make this a career. Unfortunately, I sustained an injury that made that impossible. The Navy was all I had known: it had structured my life. When I left Coronado, I was at loose ends. I worked in advertising and marketing for a short time in Chicago and realized I enjoyed design and had a natural talent for it. I enrolled in a community college course in design and marketing using my GI Bill and was lucky enough to get Professor Chu. He had been a professional automobile designer, then worked at the highest levels of advertising at Young and Rubicam in Chicago. After a week or two in his class, Professor Chu called me into his office. He said, “What’s your story?” I told him about my Navy experience, and how I was looking for the next thing in my life.

Then he said the words that changed everything. “There’s something different about you: your talent, your discipline, your desire. You shouldn’t be here. You should go to the ArtCenter College of Design, in Pasadena, California.” I’d never heard of ArtCenter. I didn’t have the portfolio to get in, but David said he’d help me. He could see that I had the talent. I needed to be challenged, and he presented this great challenge and opportunity. ArtCenter was a great school that opened a door to a world I didn’t know existed. Every good thing in my life — my whole career — came from David Chu seeing who I was, what I could be, and believing in me. I’m happy to say that David is one of my biggest fans even today.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

First, every project we work on at BRC is designed to make the world a better place by appealing to the hearts of our guests. They walk out moved, inspired and connected to other people. There are no cynics at BRC. We work on projects that matter, and we make sure these projects put our guests at the center of an empowering adventure and narrative.

Second, I mentor our people so they can get the most out of their talent and grow. I want every writer, artist and designer who passes through BRC to come out a better professional and a better person. We have a culture of family. A lot of companies say that, few believe it. We believe it. We care about one another. Like sustainability, the culture of family is a win-win, because our teams are legendary for being tight, focused and collaborative. When we gather, we’re able to tell stories that celebrate the great work we’ve done for our clients.

The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share five examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?

  1. Companies are bundling experiences so that customers can enjoy things they can’t just get online. An example is a whiskey company that sells you their premium product, then offers a master class in mixology. Customers might be offered a deep dive into the history of the brand, and also special ancillary products enhance the enjoyment of the product.
  2. Businesses are getting creative in offering unique, one-of-a-kind “you can only get this here, not on Amazon” products. Drinks & Co. has engaged a legendary Disney artist to create a special “Tiki” mug. Of course, customers get more than the mug: they get the story behind the mug, and an encounter with the engaging, expert artisan who created it. This is a deeper level of personalization that customers enjoy.
  3. Companies are packaging immersive experiences with their products. IKEA now has a well-executed VR site that actually incorporates e-commerce into the shopping experience with its IKEA Virtual Reality Store. Merrell’s Trailscape is an outdoor footwear company. They’ve created a VR experience that invites customers to walk over rickety bridges, climb walls and try out shoes in the wilderness through a VR app.
  4. Disney is a leader in moving experiences into new categories. They’ve taken their astonishing “Galaxy’s Edge” park experience and turned it into the VR experience “Oculus World,” with new adventures and new ways to monetize the brand. This is something no one’s done before: the creation of a hybrid physical and digital story world that puts the guest at the center of the adventure. I think this is going to evolve into “omni-channel” branded experiences, with physical and virtual worlds co-existing to delight guests. Not one or the other, but both together.
  5. Finally, extreme personalization. We’re discovering that people will pay a lot of money for a personalized experience that provides something distinctive and memorable. An example is a family meal catered in a way that combines the tactile and the virtual. You order the gourmet meal program. The sophisticated ingredients arrive at your home. At the given time, you dial into the personal channel of the master chef, who works with you to prepare the meal in your own kitchen. (This is a real chef, in real time — nothing pre-recorded). You not only have the pleasure of preparing a delightful meal for family and friends, you learn how to take your own cooking skills to the next level with the hands-on expertise of a world-class chef.

In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?

Let me begin with a favorite quote that speaks directly to this. Marketing guru Seth Godin said, “People do not buy goods and services. They buy relations, stories and magic.” Retail stores and malls will continue to exist if they embrace this great truth. BRC is an industry leader in the creation of brand homes. Our philosophy is to create a place that generates such a powerful emotion in guests that they become lifetime advocates for the brand. Our brand homes are not designed as corporate loss leaders. We believe they should add to the company’s bottom line, selling their regular products and special “you can get it only here” brand home products. Can retail stores and mall locations evolve into min-brand homes? They will if they want to survive.

Here’s an example of a physical retail space, often located in a shopping mall, that works as a mini-brand home: the Apple Store. Here guests enter a wondrous space that showcases Apple products. The store has a “Genius Bar” where they can get their devices repaired. They can take classes on how to get the most out of their Apple devices. These are really Apple customer clubhouses, inviting brand fans to browse, sample, learn, connect with other members of the Apple tribe, and (of course) buy.

Human beings love stories and crave connection. They will buy a Nike athletic shoe because of their emotional connection with a favorite athlete. They’ll purchase a Ford F-150 truck because they want to be part of a company dedicated to environmental innovation and sustainability. Companies that tell stories and invite guests into the magic of their brands will thrive.

The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?

Profitable retailers like Costco understand that customers don’t think of shopping as a necessary evil: fill the cart as quickly as possible and take off. They want shopping to be an adventure, filled with surprise and delight. Costco is an awesome Cathedral of Retail, where guests can discover the absolute best products in every category at the absolute lowest prices. You just never know what you’re going to find there, and that makes it fun. (It also helps that you’re a member: you’re someone special, with special access to the cathedral!)

The best retailers have learned the lessons of brand homes and themed entertainment venues: create places that are enchanting. Fill spaces with sights, smells and touches that are delightful. Hire people who understand the value of a “hospitality welcome” and friendly service. Provide a friction-free environment that makes every customer feel special. And — most important — make your venue unique. 80% of Trader Joe’s products are house brands, produced for TJ so they can offer them for ten to twenty percent less than a supermarket. The stores have a bright, “I’m on vacation” feel and the workers wear Hawaiian shirts. These are small, delightful things that make Trader Joe’s a sturdy, thriving brand.

Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

Let me quote Jerry Garcia, guitarist of the Grateful Dead (and a wildly successful, millionaire rock and roller). He famously said, “Don’t be the best at what you do: be the only one in the world who does what you do.” The way for retail and e-commerce companies to be successful is to sell exceptional products that cause customers to fall in love with them. Here’s an example from my own life: Machina coffee. Machina hand-roasts beans that produce the perfect cold brew. I love my cold brew, and I’m willing to pay a premium price for a cup that’s turns my morning into something special. It’s a small thing done perfectly, and I’m a brand evangelist.

So the lesson is, don’t compete! Once you start competing, it’s a race to the bottom. What can your retail or e-commerce company provide customers they can’t get anywhere else? Think of something as simple as a toothbrush. The Goodwell Company will send you, by subscription, an earth-friendly sustainable toothbrush that comes in plastic-free, fully recyclable packaging. You can get the bamboo brush, or the premium brush with an aluminum handle and replaceable charcoal infused heads. Goodwell isn’t competing. It’s offering a unique product and service. That’s how you win.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I don’t need to start a movement, I’m already a part of it. Let me circle back to my answer to the very first question. What changed my life on that trip to Iceland was meeting business leaders who saw their mission as more than making money. Bill McDonough believes in a design philosophy where every decision takes into account the impact on the earth for the next seven generations. He famously said, “Design is the first signal of human intention.” My intention as a designer is to delight, inspire and empower every guest with projects that are fully sustainable. There is no “Planet B.” This is it. Marshall McLuhan nailed it: “There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.”

My goal is do for others what was done for me: to invite our guests into a new understanding of our role as crew. We are living beings on a living earth in a living universe. We’re in this together, and we can co-create the sustainable world we all want.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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