Niki Nakayama is the chef and owner of a Japanese restaurant called n/naka in LA. She's a technically brilliant chef and her food has been lauded as some of the best in America. But what makes n/naka stand out is not just its food but the experience around it.

The design of the experience starts with the concept of kaiseki, a Japanese tradition that harks back to the thirteenth century and is based on local ingredients. The power of this lies in its pacing, flow and sequence of composition, texture, temperature and colour. Its success is dependent on the design the chef brings to its arrangements and in many ways reminds me of how different people make more, or less, impressive structures with the same set of Lego bricks - are you going to build a rocket ship or dinosaur? But what makes n/naka truly distinctive is a decision made at the beginning: no guest will ever be served the same thing twice. Every trip you make will be totally different to the one before. (If you want to learn more about n/naka, watch the episode about Niki on the Netflix series Chef's Table.)


n/naka understands that brands are increasingly built on their delivery. In a world where your competitors can outspend you in marketing dollars, and products can be copied at a staggering pace, experience is becoming the source of sustainable, potent, competitive advantage. We see it in things like STORY, the New York department store that uses 'experiences per sq ft' as its KPI, and Pop-Up Magazine (in my opinion, one of the greatest cultural inventions San Francisco has birthed).

Pop-Up Magazine is predicated on a brilliantly simple idea: a magazine performed live. One performance; no recording or documentation. The content is a collision between The New Yorker and NPR - short provocations, food pieces (the ingredients of beef stew in the 1950s vs. now), photography, Q&As, music and short movies. And it's put together like a magazine - lots of short, punchy stuff at the start and longer features at the end. It works, in part, because the content is eclectic but somehow coherent and pitch perfect. But it also works because it takes something you think you know and, by putting it in a different context, turns the familiar into something unfamiliar, surprising and interesting.

Image: Twitter - Pop-Up Magazine

It's fantastic not to be able to flip through it in a fit of ADD. You have to absorb all the content and also the pacing and staging of the editor and curator. And in a world of an abundance of content, it's remarkable to have something so perishable and scarce. Since launching in 2009, it has grown from filling a 100-person theatre to selling out the 3,000-seat Davies Symphony Hall (in a minute), has gone on a US tour and spawned its own magazine, The California Sunday Magazine.

Now, I'm sure the focus in recent times on customer experience hasn't escaped any of you. There are articles galore every day eulogising the importance of providing a good customer experience, with all the (unsurprising) data to back this up showing lifts in brand favourability, advocacy and sales. But a good customer experience is in many ways a double-edged sword. In a world where our competition is everything, delivering a good customer experience is a must-have. Yet in our headlong rush to define best practice and identify what makes a good experience for people, we more often than not defer to the same research and the same competitive benchmarks. The experiences offered become better but they also become more homogeneous. We set our goals at doing the basics - faster response, quicker delivery, and so on - but fail to think through how we can do these things brilliantly or distinctively.

Thinking through how we can deliver the brand in a more distinctive way is one of the biggest opportunities we have to break brands out of their commoditised sea of sameness. We need to think through the tempo of the experience, our posture, how we deliver the brand over time and across interactions. We need to understand when we should try to remove friction in the experience and when we should add it in. And we need to think about the overall system of the experience: as Marc Shillum from Chief Creative Office memorably puts it, "brands are patterns".

Perhaps one small thing we can do right now is to stop systemising brands by what they are trying to say and how they look in favour of how they behave. Thinking through the competitive experience, and looking for inspiration and collisions from elsewhere, might allow us to build truly distinctive, and therefore more valuable, brands.