September 28, 2018
A few months ago, I was sitting with a fellow event planner who shared the concept of the peak-end theory — and without question, it’s become one of my most useful tools for designing experiences.
The peak-end theory is a psychological rule that says an event is judged on how we perform at the peak (the most intense point) and at the end, whether pleasant or unpleasant, more than the experience as a whole.
While there can be nearly endless bells and whistles to add into an event — do we need flames? do we need ice cream? should we make it twice as big? — I’ve yet to run into an endless budget. I’ve found the peak-end rule is a useful filter to help sort out the elements of an experience that will be remembered, and those that won’t, because at the end of the day, experiential marketing is about giving consumers a memory.
Here is an example of the peak-end rule, shared by Dr. Daniel Kahneman, the theory’s founder:
[A colleague] said he’d been listening to a symphony, and it was absolutely glorious music and at the very end of the recording, there was a dreadful screeching sound. And then he added, really quite emotionally, it ruined the whole experience. But it hadn’t. What it had ruined were the memories of the experience. He had had the experience. He had had 20 minutes of glorious music. They counted for nothing because he was left with a memory; the memory was ruined, and the memory was all that he had gotten to keep.
What this example is telling us, really, is that we are all storytellers. Regardless of the factual experience, memory often tells a different — and abridged — version of events based on the peak and ending moments.
We like to put a lot of emphasis on great openers to an experience: a joke from the speaker to break the ice, the shock and awe of a big reveal at the start, the signature scent you breathe in when you enter a retail space. But we often forget about the ending. Those last critical moments are proven to have a stronger impact on our memory of the experience, and if the ending is bad, the entire memory can be bad.
Retailers are smart about this. They train their staff to walk your bag around the counter to hand deliver it as you leave. Or they, sometimes theatrically, wrap your items in tissue to ensure you end the experience feeling validated that your purchase was special. And of course, Amazon is leading the charge with Amazon Go, an end-of-shopping experience so blissful that it makes us introverts weep very private tears of joy.
Fitness studios and salons are savvy about this, too. Not only do they train employees to deliver a warm welcome for their customers, but a fond farewell. Numerous customer service studies from brands like Apple and Ritz Carlton have shown that using someone’s name when you say goodbye can boost sales. These seemingly little touches, it turns out, are critically important to creating a positive memory.
Equally important, according to the theory, is the emotional high point of an experience. When looking back, we won’t remember our feelings throughout an event, but rather our emotions at the peak. These highs can take on many forms: angry, happy, surprised, fearful, excited or sad. The impact is all the same: the strongest feeling will be the part burned into the memory of your audience.
Examples of emotional moments can be as simple as holding a puppy or listening to someone tell a moving story. Or they can be as grand as a live gospel choir or helicopter ride. The key is to create an experience that makes your audience feel something, and ideally, feel it strongly enough that they will remember it long after the experience is done.
And why are memories important? Because we put more weight on the memory of an experience than the actual experience itself. Our memories have the power to transcend the rational aspects of a brand, and when this happens, your product no longer needs to compete solely on analytical factors like price, quality or availability. Rather, your customer will be fueled by a genuine emotional memory of your brand rooted deep in their psyche.