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Branding me softly – How hard or soft should IPs be applied to themed experience designs?

Around IAAPA week in Orlando I always try and visit my favourite Walt Disney World haunt for a beer and a snack (and no, when I say ‘haunt’ I’m not talking about sneaking a pint aboard my doom buggy whilst riding the Haunted Mansion) – I’m talking about Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar.

For those of you who don’t know, Jock Lindsey’s is a themed F&B venue situated at Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney). From the outside it’s immediately clear that this is a venue themed to a 1930’s airplane hangar. This is also the case as you enter. It’s beautifully themed and immediately communicates the era and theme it’s going for. Dig a little deeper however and you may discover that it’s actually based on a very well known film franchise – Indiana Jones.

Indiana Jones

Even if you’re familiar with the Indiana Jones movies, you would be forgiven for still not knowing who (or what) Jock Lindsey is. Let me help you out. Towards the end of that iconic opening scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where our favourite whip wielding archaeology professor infiltrates the Peruvian temple (the one with the giant rolling ball!) to retrieve the golden idol. Indy is being chased by the natives and runs towards a small bi-plane who’s pilot is fishing in the river. Yes, that’s Jock Lindsey! The guy has literally seconds of screen time and is then never seen (or even mentioned) again in any of the subsequent Indy films. Take a look below. Can’t see the video? Click here.

The story at this venue, however, is that after years of exploring with the famous archaeologist Jock one day flew over Disney Springs and decided to open a bar there.

So, what an intriguing and somewhat risky move to base an entire themed experience on that very minor character and leave the very famous main character mostly absent. Yes, the bar is laced with Easter eggs sure to delight fans of the film series. But Indiana Jones himself is practically nowhere to be seen other than appearing in a few subtle photographs dotted around – even then it’s usually from the rear so his face isn’t visible- and mentioned by name in the menu among other places.

As someone who works with many IP holders when developing themed experiences, I find this ‘soft’ use of the IP absolutely fascinating. I’m sure there were probably budget reasons for not using Harrison Ford’s likeness that maybe steered the concept in this direction. But when I visit I’m still completely immersed in Indy’s world and feel I’m surrounded by his exploits even though this incredible minor character takes center stage. The story and -more importantly- the feeling of the IP is still effectively communicated to me.

Park Row

Let’s look at another example of ‘soft’ IP – Park Row in London. Park Row is billed as ‘London’s first DC inspired restaurant experience. At a glance it is a high end, art deco inspired dining experience, yet dig a little deeper and the connections to the Batman IP become apparent with the decor, F&B nomenclature and easter eggs evoking the feeling of living in Gotham City despite not ever explicitly showcasing the caped crusader himself – again, another arguably ‘soft’ use of a very famous IP.

It could definitely be argued that because these two experiences are laced with easter eggs and names of characters and locations that it technically isn’t ‘soft’. But the discipline and restraint applied in the above two examples has resulted in two absolutely stellar IP based themed experiences being created. Heck the name of the IP doesn’t even feature in the attractions nomenclature (Batman: Park Row would surely attract more casual Batman fans right? Same goes for Indiana Jones?)

Maybe that’s a better definition of ‘Soft IP’ in that it only applies to an IP where a character/characters name and appearance takes center stage in it’s branding in other media? Whereas if an IP’s location takes center stage over any character then it technically doesn’t count. A good example would be the Bioshock video games, whereby the City of Rapture is very much the star of the show rather than the protagonists themselves.

So what are the pros and cons of taking this more subtle approach when translating an IP into a physical themed environment?

Benefits to a Soft approach

  1. Budget – Sometimes partially using an IP can lead to project savings. For example, not using famous actor’s likenesses.

  2. Restriction breeds creativity – Having a defined set of rules such as not using a character can sometimes lead to wonderful, less obvious ideas in blue-sky thinking

  3. Greater appeal to ‘waders’, ‘swimmers’ and ‘divers’. Even if you are not familiar with these stories – you can still enjoy a well themed experience for its atmosphere and offering. (whilst the super fans can geek out at the detail)

Downsides to a soft approach

  1. Instant appeal and recognition – often the reason for licensing an IP in the first place can potentially be lost to a large percentage of guests.

  2. If executed poorly, potential criticism of not using the IP to it’s full potential from fans.

Whether you’re an IP holder, property developer or creative consultant – It’s always worth questioning how ‘hard’ a brand should be executed in a guest environment and whether the more subtle approach may have much more exciting and intriguing consequences that match a venue’s commercial and creative objectives.

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