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The UX of Urban Adventure

One of the first UX projects I worked on was back in the mid 1980s but the lessons are very much applicable to today. At the time, we called it ‘marketing’ but the problems that we had to solve were more about what we now call User Experience, than about what marketing has become – with its data-driven, reactive focus.

Hunting World is an American brand of high-end luggage and hand-bags, with a decidedly safari look. 35 years ago it had a kind of cult following among Japanese freelancer professionals who had discovered its small store in New York on 53rd & Lexington while scouring the NY scene for “something new.”

The company I worked for in Japan had just been appointed the exclusive importer and distributor for Hunting World. But sales were languishing even though the product was great. Back then we didn’t have data mining to tell us everything we needed to know about minute-to-minute changes in consumer tastes. Thankfully so, because sometimes when tactics drive strategy, well that’s like the tail wagging the dog.

Without data, we took stock of the situation and made a few changes. After just 3 years, Hunting World rose to become the second leading handbag brand in Japan, behind only Louis Vuitton. It enjoyed better sales than Gucci, Fendi, Prada, Chanel, Hermes, Coach, Burberry, Bottega Veneta, and all the other haute couture brands. And Hunting World was by far the most expensive of the lot. 95% of global sales of the product were to Japanese.

So, what changes did we make? For starters, we intuitively looked at the User Experience.

First, we looked at what we had to work with. Hunting World was an American brand, but it was manufactured in France and Italy. It featured over 250 styles, each one of them designed by the mercurial founder of the company, Bob Lee, who used to take wealthy clients on expensive hunting safari to Angola. Each curve, stitch, pouch, and angle had a specific reason and was developed for use in the field.

Conclusion: There was a story to tell, and it wasn’t being told.

The brand enjoyed favorable distribution across Japan, mostly in up-scale department stores. But its placement was relegated to the luggage section, next to products that were less than half the price. By contrast, the refined European brands all had boutiques up on the tokusen uriba, (“special selection”), an entire floor dedicated to European items. Most Japanese department stores had these ‘high street’ boutique floors, and they jockeyed for position by who carried the best brands.

Conclusion: Potential consumers were comparing the product to the wrong competitors.

We then looked at the Japanese customer. Those Japanese ‘hunters’ discovered Hunting World while looking for something new. Something authentic. Something with meaning and substance. And, perhaps subconsciously, looking for something distinctly American. I had observed a kind of Japanese fascination with things American, dating back from the end of World War II. The trendy sections of Tokyo and Osaka were packed with these ‘Americana’ stores full of old Coke vending machines, motion-lit Hamm’s Beer signs, and leather motorcycle jackets. While their fastidious nature usually led them to European brands because of a shared obsession with quality, that parallel fascination with America was very real – and we were not addressing it.

Part of user experience is the human experience. We are all looking for depth and meaning, in our lives. By extension, we want our interaction with product to be not just an intuitive extension of ourselves, but one that elevates our purpose. With Hunting World, we felt that we could tap into this need if we could deliver a meaningful experience to the Japanese customer. And we realized that we had the perfect product to do this with – an American product, manufactured to exacting standards in Europe, and designed by a man with a face, a name, and a reason.

First Comes Strategy

With these observations, a strategy emerged.

First: at $750 for a cosmetic’s purse, this was definitely a niche product! Forget expanding distribution. Consider instead, limiting it. Second, the product must be displayed in a way that would unambiguously declare the experience it can deliver. Build the ‘world’ of Hunting World. Third, focus media and promotions on the story behind Bob Lee. Let people understand that he was the Karl Lagerfeld of handbags. Finally, give it a catch phrase that defines the experience in just a few words. Something that speaks directly to our niche customer.

Then Comes Tactics

We put together a plan to limit our distribution by announcing to our 50 customers that we would close down our accounts at all but the first 10 stores that would invest in our vision by opening a full-sized Hunting World ’boutique’ inside. And we added one more requirement as well. Rather than having our boutique on the tokusen uriba, we wanted ours to be on the ground floor. Next to the main entrance. Forget the Vuittons and the Gucci’s upstairs. We wanted to be next to the high price, high volume zone of cosmetics counters and shoes.

These in-store boutiques became the ‘world’ of Hunting World. The larger ones featured an “Adventurer’s Corner” that served espresso and contained artifacts from Lees’ various expeditions. Some included props such as a tree from the Serengeti.

We organized an expedition to the mountains of Xinjiang with Bob Lee, and photographed him with his products.

Design and authenticity aside, we recognized that most people would be using Hunting World’s products on airplanes or on the streets of big cities. So our catch-phrase came naturally – “Urban Adventure”.

Takeaways

The consumer was looking for authenticity, and we provided it.

In this case, we did not have to re-design our product. We just had to match it with the experience expected by the customer – or, looking at it from another angle, match customers to the experience that our product could deliver.

UX 101 – The Lesson

If you have a good product that meets the needs of a defined group of users, and if you pay attention to the user experience by telling your story well and with authenticity, then you have the first step towards success – even if you make mistakes along the way. Examples can be found in ‘old’ companies ranging from Apple to Ben & Jerry’s to Patagonia, as well as in newer companies like Warby Parker, Blue Apron, and Zappo’s.

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