‘Play is an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill, and often of money. In spite of this, or because of it, play constitutes an essential element of human social and spiritual development.’ Roger Caillois
There’s something about the scowl, the protruding lower lip, the intense, Churchillian expression of concentration on the face of a toddler who’s engaged in the serious business of play. It’s almost laughable.
Because although we’ve been conditioned to think of play as frivolous, something we do till we’re grown up enough to know better, we know deep down it just ain’t so.
Play is more than fun…
Play is a risk-free way of learning. We learn to climb around in playgrounds because we know the floor is squashy. We can lose a fortune in matchsticks on a single hand of cards or battle alien invasions before bedtime. Play unlocks our imaginations.
…it’s serious business…
We also play games to explore complex ideas surrounding economics, politics, sociology and psychology, only we talk about Game Theory because a) we take ourselves a bit too seriously and b) the stakes are high: We play war games to make sure Cold Wars don’t turn hot.
…and play brings us together
Here’s a strange one: After the introduction of central heating, we began playing more and more by ourselves. We left the parlour games in the parlour and retreated from the fireside to our individual, radiator-enabled rooms to watch our individual TV screens and plug into our personal stereos. But the board-game boom that began in the 90s and is still going strong as well as the robust success of multiplayer consoles like Nintendo’s Wii (the latter-day parlour game) showed that our desire to play together is alive and well. (According to a consumer survey by Gadget Helpline, the Wii was the gadget that ‘made us most happy’ — most likely replaced in recent months by the multi platform Fortnite.)
For brands, all this represents a huge opportunity. Unlock our instinct to play and you benefit from a deeper level of engagement and understanding.
Whether we admit it or not, a lot of us already play with items in-store. We fiddle with phones in Carphone Warehouse because just as play helps us understand ideas it also helps us get a feel for products. We click tongs together in homeware stores, and we run on the spot in sports stores imagining we’re Mo Farah. We play because we want to experience the product before we buy it, and to imagine it in our lives.
Some brands issue an explicit invitation to play. Take Lego, for example, the company exists to inspire children by encouraging them to leg godt (‘play well’). FITCH delivered a retail design that put less emphasis on actively pursuing sales and more on letting sales simply ensue. By clearing away a quarter of the merchandise on the shop floor, we were able to create a space where children could simply do their thing. We also put the important stuff at eye level and within reach of small hands, and made bricks and character parts available by the scoopful at the pick-a-brick wall.
Lego enjoyed a 30% increase in sales in the first year. Perhaps more importantly, by offering a playful environment that built and maintained a personal connection by delivering a real, live human experience, they were able to provide something priceless for their customers to take home: a lasting impression. Other brands looking to create environments like this and achieve something similar need to move away from traditional storytelling towards interactions that are unique.
In the face of the exponential growth of e-tailers, this is particularly good news for those retailers and customers who see continued value in a complementary physical experience. Powerful, valuable in-store experiences present a competitive edge that can cut into lean e-commerce pricing structures that are often referred to as ‘Pure Play’ when they are really anything but.
This explains why other, more grown-up brands are following Lego’s example. The US clothing and footwear brand Vans opened The House of Vans last year in the tunnels under London’s Waterloo station. It’s not a retail outlet, it’s the city’s only permanent indoor skate park, art gallery, live music venue and cinema with exciting events and exhibitions that change regularly. It’s a place where people can experience and interact with the brand in a much more informal setting, which in turn helps Vans build long-term relationships with consumers.
Even car companies are swapping tools for grown-up toys. Audi City includes a tech-enhanced space where visitors can configure their ideal car using touchscreens and multi-sensory displays. The Lexus Intersect space focuses less on vehicles and more on the whole Lexus lifestyle — from food to fashion — positioning itself as a cultural hub more than a showroom.
Today, play is a serious business in the retail environment. Being playful and engaging brings brands to life, making them stand out in an increasingly cluttered, competitive and digital world. Whether big or small, national or international, brands must not underestimate the importance of play. You simply can’t put a price on playing well.