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Brand rescue: What one reality show tells us about experience transformation

by Struck CEO Andrew Howlett

Say what you will about reality shows, but one’s caught our eye recently for its astute, hands-on take on transformation—Bar Rescue. There are few things as satisfying as a good makeover, especially (in our minds) a business one. In this show, John Taffer, a seasoned expert, saves the day for struggling bars around the country. He swoops in and performs a professional assessment of why that bar is near shutting its doors, then gives it a thorough overhaul on a rapidfire timeline, re-launching a transformed version of the bar that’s poised for lasting success.

Craft mixology takes the place of their lackluster cocktails, dingy kitchens turn into shining beacons of culinary excellence, and old signs are torn down, replaced with hip and appealing exteriors. The stories satisfy at every turn, culminating in grand re-openings met with accolades by throngs of impressed customers raving about the revamped experience. 

But not only do the stories feel good—they validate and illustrate the three stages of transformation that serve as guiding principles in the work we prescribe and perform for our clients:

Business transformation: Today, this is table-stakes. Before things like branding and experiential marketing can happen, a business needs to keep up with ever-evolving demands–and run a tight ship. To Bar Rescue’s squad, this means tightening up a bar’s inventory management system, defining the staff’s roles, and cleaning up operations (sometimes literally). 

Digital transformation: Business is just harder for both companies and their customers if they haven’t embraced the technologies available to make things smoother, faster, and more enjoyable. For our bar friends, this meant bringing in sleek point-of-sale systems for entering and tracking customer orders — which made things easier for the kitchen, simpler for servers, and clearer for the managers tracking inventory.

Experience transformation: Here, we get to the granddaddy deal-breaker, the part customers are most keenly aware of—their experience. And it matters not just for bars, but for any business. Taffer’s crew revitalized businesses by helping them define their audience, think through what would delight them (or turn them off), assess the strategic landscape to determine what niche the bar should be filling, and craft a highly intentional, branded experience that will leave a lasting impression. 

Transformation isn’t about your brand—it’s about your audience.

In this show and in the real world of branding and advertising work too, the experiential transformation is where the rubber really hits the road. To do it, a brand needs to be well defined. It has to know its audience well enough to anticipate how to make them feel understood—like their needs are fully anticipated at every touchpoint of their journey.

In one Bar Rescue episode, the team reimagines a champagne bar that wants to connect better with a female audience. Taffer directs a full rebranding and renaming, softens the interior lighting, changes the shape of the bar stools for easier social interaction, dials up the cocktail menu’s appeal, trains the staff to promote a safe and comfortable atmosphere, 

and even transforms the food menu with small bites that are as fresh as they are fun. Unsurprisingly, female locals loved the new experience and kept coming back for more.

For true experience transformation, a brand’s identity, ethos, and story weave into every element of a physical place, a digital experience, a customer experience. And that brand identity is informed by deep audience understanding. 

It’s how we approach every project, like Struck’s  recent renaming and rebranding of Altabank. Formerly three disparate community banks, the brand aspired to convey the business’ modern, progressive, digitally mature direction, showcasing to customers that it had all the service upsides of a regional bank plus the innovation and prowess of a larger bank.

Our team approached our recommendation with a holistic approach not unlike Jon Taffer’s, minus the camera crew and dramatic soundtrack. (Although we’re now tempted to start using sound effects in our presentations.) The bank received a full strategic analysis, renaming, rebranding, creative campaign, and digital overhaul. The brand transformation fueled and enhanced a full experience transformation that inspired both current and prospective audiences to expect big things of their local bank.

The only catch: mindset matters.

Here’s the “you can lead a horse to water “ part. Taffer was able to revitalize most bars he worked with for long term success, but some bar owners just weren’t ready to take the plunge and embrace full experience transformation. Some reverted to their old naming, some let the staff fall into their old ways, some went back to an  “all things to all people” menu, and some let their updated spaces fall into disrepair.

We see it across other industries, too: brands ready to embrace a wholistic transformation that keeps them on course for long term success not only undergo business transformation but also digital transformation and, finally, experience transformation. With all three elements in play, it would be hard to fall off course. 

And while this reality show relies on the inherent suspense of swooping in to save the day for a business on the precipice of shuttering its doors, you don’t have to wait till you’re on the brink to examine your transformational progress and give it a little recalibration (or an overhaul if needed). You’re the expert in your business. But don’t be afraid to bring in someone who’s an expert in transforming it.