Chris Christodoulou of Saddington Baynes: “Make sure you’re stimulating all five senses”

Build a space that is right for your audience that will invite them in — one that has the right energy, makes them feel welcome to want to spend time with you. Make it easy for them to find what they want — that the retail space is not cluttered or dense so they don’t feel claustrophobic or closed in. […]

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Build a space that is right for your audience that will invite them in — one that has the right energy, makes them feel welcome to want to spend time with you. Make it easy for them to find what they want — that the retail space is not cluttered or dense so they don’t feel claustrophobic or closed in.

Make sure you’re stimulating all five senses. Really consider the choice of music that you play, the smell of the store, the flow and energy of the experience.

As part of my series about the “How To Create A Fantastic Retail Experience That Keeps Bringing Customers Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Christodoulou.

Chris is the CEO and co-owner of award-winning creation production studio Saddington Baynes. He joined the company in 1994 as its first digital artist working with the world’s leading creative directors, photographers, agencies and brands and took the reins as CEO during the financial crash of 2009. He was one of the early pioneers behind the introduction of CGI into the marketing industry, and has since driven the award-winning use of consumer neuroscience during production of campaign assets that provide clients with previously hidden insights into emotional response, consumer perception and brand resonance. His focus is in working closely with global brands to develop more effective and engaging visual content that enhances their brand, online and ecommerce presence.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Chris: If we go all the way back to my childhood, I would say comic books were what inspired me artistically — in another life I would be a comic book artist. I was also captivated by the science fiction worlds of Star Wars and Blade Runner. I was always really interested in the logic and the processes that you find in mathematics and science, whilst also being creatively driven to draw and paint. I ended up doing my major studies in math, physics and art, which is quite an unusual combination. I see real beauty in the structure and flow of mathematical formulae in arriving at the answer, which to me have their own unique aesthetic. This left brain / right brain approach has very much influenced the way that the company works creatively, with a logical, structured production process that provides a solid framework within which we are free to be expressive.

I completed an art & design course at Middlesex Poly in the late eighties, which gave me a great grounding for expressing myself creatively in different media. I went to Bournemouth College after that where I pushed to use their Quantel Paintbox, the very first tablet-based digital retouching system. Following my final thesis, I was offered two jobs in the same week — as a graphic designer at Landor Associates or as a digital re-toucher, which was a brand new role back then. I chose the latter because it fused my love of art and computers. In that first role as a re-toucher I met Chas Saddington and Dick Baynes who had been in the advertising industry since the mid-sixties in the pre-digital retouching era. They decided to buy their own retouching system and brought me on board. We quickly became acknowledged as the best retouching studio in the world, working on some incredible campaigns, especially in the US. Twenty seven years later, I’m very proud to be the CEO of Saddington Baynes and I take immense pleasure in seeing the amazing work my creative teams produce on a daily basis.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Chris: I guess I’ve tried to forget my mistakes, especially the early ones! As for the funniest mistake, that would have to be when two days after I started my career, I went to a party hosted by a design company I’d spent time with on placement. It was a full-blown German-themed Christmas party, complete with lederhosen, a brass band and even a goat! I was introduced to the dangerous pleasures of mulled wine that night, and it’s fair to say as someone who doesn’t drink that much that I underestimated how potent it is!

Let’s just say that my third day at work as a rookie digital artist was pretty hideous and generated much amusement.

What I took away from that was always know what’s in your glass and don’t drink during the week!

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

Chris: I think that would have to be Chas Saddington — he was a truly great mentor for a young, ambitious person like myself. I effectively took over the role that he used to do in the darkroom working with photographers. When I was starting out, it took a while to fully appreciate the value of attention to detail, because it’s what the people we were working for expected. The work had to be seamless to the eye. Through this approach he taught me the need for continuous improvement — making sure that you’ve covered off every single aspect of what you do; that the edges are invisible so you couldn’t see where the joins and seams were. And that approach to what we do continues to this day.

Chas’ methodologies were carried over from his career in the 60’s onwards — through the golden age of advertising, as they call it. He handed that over to me, and I passed it on to others. It’s become part of the company ethos — hiring a mixture of both experienced and raw talent and creating an incubator for our artists, giving them unparalleled training and access to our tried and tested techniques in the industry.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Chris: When it comes to business, one of the books I love is Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar. In a very honest and revealing way, he explains how even big, powerful and creative companies like Pixar face the same challenges and issues we have. It’s a very inspiring book with some fantastic quotes, wisdom and cultural values that have helped me visualize the way I want our business to run.

On a personal level, I learned a lot from the book Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself by Dr. Joe Dispenza. It’s an inspiring book because it allows you to understand just how much power we have as human beings to rewire our lives and our bodies purely by thinking differently, in turn changing the chemical reactions inherent in our patterns and conditioning.

With regards to podcasts it would have to be Simon Sinek’s Start With Why. Based on the book, and as the name suggests, it’s about companies who don’t talk about what they do or how they do it but why they do it — it looks at the idea that why you do what you do is what brings people to work for you and what makes people buy your products. I also really like Brené Brown’s podcast The Power of Vulnerability — it’s a deep exploration of the human condition and how we tend to sabotage ourselves through various inherited and learned emotions like shame and guilt and so on, which holds us back from reaching our potential.

For films it’s got to be Blade Runner — it’s the ultimate sci fi film for me, and resonates for it’s visionary style and cinematography. It got me into the idea of robots and for a while I wanted to get into Cybernetic Design as a career. And for pure fun and for the love of film it is Cinema Paradiso — a beautiful Italian film about a blind projectionist, who befriends a small boy in rural Italy. It’s a wonderful paean to cinema itself.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Chris: It’s something we ask ourselves a lot when we’re thinking about our value proposition — both for clients and for talent. I know everyone can say they do quality work, and clients would expect nothing less but there is a special quality to our work and aesthetic that sets us apart. We have a very strong culture where we trust the people that work for us to express themselves creatively, to have accountability and to put ideas forward. So I think it’s an enduring mix of a strong, open culture, absolute attention to detail and exceptional client service. We take pride in what we do and that underpins everything, including the way that we collaborate with our clients.

Everything we say about ourselves — our marketing, our voice, the work — it creates a perception in people’s minds of what we’re like to work with as a brand and we want to live up to and exceed those expectations and perceptions every time, on every project. We want people to know that with us they will have a personalized, tailor made experience — and we will bring our years of experience and creativity to create magical work. That’s why I think we have endured as a business that’s survived multiple financial crashes, disasters, good times, and bad times over the last 30 years — our values and our ethos have stayed constant and true.

One story that stands out for me is our award for ‘Best Use of Data and Insights’ at the prestigious CIM awards in 2018 for our pioneering work with Honda. Using our consumer neuroscience expertise during production of their largest ever digital pan-European rollout campaign, we tested and delivered deep insights into brand perception and emotional resonance of our imagery, helping them increase their online engagement metrics across their biggest markets. We were up against some of the biggest players in the most hotly-contested category and won! It was a proud moment for me because Engagement Insights® was my brainchild, and because we are the only production company in the world to ever win this award.

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

Chris: There’s a tendency and expectation when you’re in a position of authority to feel the need to have all the answers and be seen to make all the decisions. That’s not the culture we’ve built in my company. I’ve learned that it’s better to be honest and admit when you don’t know. I believe in surrounding yourself with people smarter than you that you trust to support you, and give them the forum to speak openly and honestly. I experienced burnout in the early part of my career when I was working 100 hours a week as a re-toucher and there’s a limit to what you can do at that pace. It was difficult because in the retouching industry at the time there weren’t that many people that could work on a Paintbox like me, but as things improved and the system’s changed more people became available and I trained them to work within our structure at the quality we’re famous for. So now it’s about finding and training talented people and trusting them to do what you hired them for and not micromanaging. Too often there’s pressure on leaders to know everything and be able to answer everything. There’s no shame in not knowing, because this is a journey and you’re experiencing new and different challenges every day. It’s not like you can call on previous experience and have the exact answer you need at any one time. So that’s my advice — hire well and trust your people to help get you where you need to be rather than trying to know or do it all yourself.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. The Pandemic only made things much worse for retailers in general. 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?

I’m not a retailer, but I can certainly offer my perspective as a customer. What I would say from what I’ve seen is that the retailers who have benefitted the most are the ones that have pivoted the fastest when responding to financial uncertainty. The brands that have struggled the most or have gone out of business are the ones that haven’t created a good enough bridge between their digital experiences and their physical experiences. So many consumers are digitally savvy now and make a lot of their buying decisions on the phone. In the case of the car industry — we’ve worked with many car companies improving their online experience because for the first time in history, the idea of ‘buyer beware’ with the classic stereotype of the “sleazy salesman” who will try to manipulate you no longer applies. Nowadays the consumer is arguably far more informed than the dealers. They know more about the product because the online experience has reached a point now where you can learn so much about what you’re going to buy before going anywhere near visiting a dealership, which used to be anywhere from two to four times before you actually bought a car. Nowadays people go in once having already made up their mind or are about to decide because they already know everything and they just want to see the car physically.

As an example, the Audi City store in London replaced physical car models with large screens showing life-sized CGI images of the cars. They created a fantastically rich digital experience inside the existing retail space — to the degree that half the people that buy a car don’t even test drive it. They do have some tangible materials, such as the fabrics and swatches that you can touch, and you can configure your car right in front of you on the screen and look at it from every angle with all your accessories and colors so you know exactly what you are buying. That’s a great example of how you can change the retail experience to be much more interactive, by beautifully bridging the online experience of configuration within the retail space itself in a way you can;’t do online because of the size of the screens. They sold more cars per square foot than having the physical cars in the dealership.

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 retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

Chris: This ultimately comes down to the classic battle between value and cost. If we think about behavioral economics and the way that we perceive value and cost, they are two different things. So I think brands are going to have to work much harder to sell on value because competing on cost is a race to the bottom. It’s going to be quite interesting to see how luxury brands can bridge the perception of value online when there is no way for people to go and actually see their products. How do you represent a luxury product on a mobile phone? How do you visually exude luxury when your product has been reduced to a small mobile phone or laptop screen, and people can’t touch it and they can’t feel it?

If we look at watches it reminds me of the classic argument of — would you rather buy a 10,000 dollars watch or its 200 dollars counterfeit, which looks and feels identical and in some cases is made in the same way? Most people would look at the latter and think it’s the real thing, but emotionally you might perceive that buying the original offers more value and says more about you as a person than paying much less for something that looks identical. So it comes down to emotional buying and how a product makes you feel. This very much speaks to the aspects of consumer neuroscience we’re been using with the work we produce for our clients. Over 85 percent of the decisions we make as human beings are emotionally driven, and the bigger the purchase, the more emotionally-loaded it is. So in order to combat cheap prices, it’s going to be incumbent on brands, retail companies and e-commerce companies to really tap into emotional marketing, to visually express the quality and value of their products and how they’re actually going to enrich people’s lives without having to say why they should pay more for it. This will require them to connect with their customers in a nonconscious emotional level through their marketing more than ever, because people will pay more for something they perceive adds value to their lives.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a retail business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Chris: When you think about the reasons why retail businesses don’t succeed, typically it’s to do with their proposition, marketing and/or branding. With so much choice at your fingertips, retailers need to make their business really distinctive — why are they in existence and how are they going to enrich somebody’s life in their area of influence? Researching your market is the number one thing to do — is there a place for you in that market and can you be number one or number two? If you can’t, then what are you bringing to that market? It’s probably more valuable now than ever if you’re starting a retail business in a pandemic — to really know what is your addressable market, how do they find you and what you are bringing to them.

This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business in general and for retail in particular?

Chris: It’s been proven that we like to buy, we don’t like to be sold to. So a relaxed experience where you’re given the freedom to buy and the salesperson gives you the sense that they are genuinely interested in what you’re there for — they want to make your experience the best it can be and give you what you want and go on that journey with you. For me, I feel that is essential. We know that online personalization and customization have become really important, the same should apply in retail. You want to be able to choose exactly what you want when you want it — there’s so much choice online now. But I always find that great customer service tends to involve someone who feels very authentic, who knows what they’re talking about and can give you ideas. It shouldn’t feel like just a transaction, it should feel like a mutually beneficial relationship where you’re meeting somebody of like mind who genuinely cares about what you want and helps you get there. Good customer experiences are when you really feel like, wow, that person really delivered for me and I feel great about what I’ve bought. And I don’t mind paying that bit more for it because there was value in the experience. The experience is just as important as the product itself, because it stays with you emotionally and in your memory, which means you have a positive brand experience.

We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

Chris: The disconnect for me comes from what I perceive as a lack of authenticity and general lack of interest in what the customer really wants. Shopping is an emotional experience. Ultimately, every single interaction between a customer and a salesperson in a retail space — whoever that salesperson is, they are in that moment representing their company in everything they do; the way they speak, the way they dress, the way they serve you, the way they talk to you. If any of those things don’t match up to the perception you have of that brand and the experience you believe you’re going to have, you’re going to be disappointed. And it happens a lot. Let’s say you go into a hot new restaurant that has rave reviews. It’s beautifully designed, and looks and feels incredible. But you just happen to have a waiter or waitress that is surly and aloof and doesn’t serve you in the way you would expect, which ruins your experience and that’s all you remember. The food might be delicious, but it ultimately leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

When it comes to those not making it a priority I wonder if it’s due to not respecting service as a career. There are certain countries that really do service well and they’re the countries where it’s a respected career. And it’s those moment-by-moment interactions that make the big difference, which make you come away going, wow, that brand is amazing. Through our neuroscience Engagement Insights® service we talk about how a brand is made up of a constellation of perceptions of lots of little individual moments; taste, smell, sound, touch — and service is one of them. A lot of brands might put a lot of time and money into the branding, the marketing, the retail space, the design. They make sure everything looks amazing but somewhere along the line they’ve forgotten to pay enough attention to the human interaction, which is where all those elements are distilled into the overall experience. That comes down to the way they train the people they hire to interact with customers, to deliver that service to make them feel special.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

Chris: Hmm, good question. We’ve been blessed to work on some truly incredible projects with great testimonials and high NPS scores from our clients over the years, but if there is one story that comes to mind it’s the Configurator project we created for luxury car brand Infiniti when automotive CGI was in its infancy. We set up a presentation demo at our studios to show our innovative solution and the Marketing Director, who was looking at the screen at a static image of his car seemed somewhat unimpressed. I gestured to him to take the mouse and move it. As he did so, the static image of the car moved in sync with his hand movement. His face lit up and he said ‘Wow, this is amazing’, as he spun the car around. We won the business. It stays with me because it was such a wonderful emotional reaction. Ultimately we all want to feel something, even the people who commission the work make emotional buying decisions, whether they know it or not.

Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

Chris: Yes it did. That was our first car configurator, back in 2008, and Configurators have become a key part of our business, as the consumer shift to online research has grown exponentially. We are now producing real-time configurators to serve the demand for more engaging user experiences.

A fantastic retail experience isn’t just one specific thing. It can be a composite of many different subtle elements fused together. Can you help us break down and identify the different ingredients that come together to create a “fantastic retail experience”?

Chris: I’ve touched on these points before but for me, a fantastic retail experience is one that actually stimulates all your senses. Ninety percent of what we absorb is visual, so the visual experience has to be really powerful from the store window onwards. Even the smell of the store, the music that is being played, the volume of the music. Is the smell overpowering? Does it make you feel overwhelmed or relaxed? These are all really important. And then we look at branding — there’s a lot that can be communicated through really powerful, strong branding. Again, all of these elements create the constellation that makes up a distinctive brand experience.

But ultimately the retail space itself is the key — does it have the products that you want and are you treated as a valued customer when you’re there? Think about the decisions you’re making and the sensory information you’re taking in as you’re making a decision as to whether to even go into a store — especially if it’s not one you’ve been in before. Am I going to be approached as soon as I walk in to try and be sold to? Does it have what I want? Is it a nice place? Do I want to spend time there? How are the salespeople dressed? Are they courteous? Does it heighten and stimulate your senses to create a memorable retail experience that you want to repeat? If you come away with what you want, you’ve been treated with courtesy and respect and you’ve enjoyed the experience of buying, then you’re more likely to become a loyal customer.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.

Chris: In addition to what I’ve just mentioned, I think the five most important things would be:

  1. Create distinctive products that make a difference to people’s lives.
  2. Build a space that is right for your audience that will invite them in — one that has the right energy, makes them feel welcome to want to spend time with you. Make it easy for them to find what they want — that the retail space is not cluttered or dense so they don’t feel claustrophobic or closed in.
  3. Make sure you’re stimulating all five senses. Really consider the choice of music that you play, the smell of the store, the flow and energy of the experience.
  4. Think about the way that you greet and work with your customer base. How can you make it a more personalized experience for them?
  5. Take a genuine interest in understanding and serving your customers’ needs.

Too often people spend more time on the visual experience, but not enough on the service level.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would start a movement to better educate people about the enormous health benefits of a plant-based diet, starting with giving a group of people free digital copies of the seminal book on the subject, The China Study by T. Colin Campbell and asking them to share the book when they’ve finished it so it reaches as many people as possible. It is eye-opening and compelling reading.

How can our readers further follow your work?

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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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