Jan Walters wants Atlantans to get down and dirty with her appliances. Visitors to her new showroom in upscale Buckhead are welcome to fry eggs on a high-BTU Whirlpool range or see for themselves if a KitchenAid convection oven can make fast food of a raw chicken. They can even run their clothes through what Walters says is the best washers on the market, though so far people seem reluctant to air their dirty laundry quite that publicly.

Visitors to Walters' Insperience Studio, owned by Whirlpool Corp., can do just about anything they want there — except buy the appliances they test. For that they are referred to an appliance store, which Insperience Studio decidedly is not.

“We're a branded showcase, designed to get the brand out and communicated to our consumers directly,” says Walters, the manager of the 12,000-square-foot facility and the former brand manager for Whirlpool cooking appliances. The Insperience Studio is located next to a Marshall's discount store in the high-traffic Buckhead Place shopping center.

Think of Insperience as a test track for white goods. “When you buy a car they give you the keys and say take it for a drive, and that's what were doing here,” Walters says. Consumers don't get that opportunity when they go to the typical appliance dealer, where the products aren't even plugged in. That leaves Whirlpool relying on an appliance salesman to convince a prospective buyer that all those features that go into a premium range are worth the extra price.

That, Whirlpool figured, was not good enough. So the appliance maker has joined the world of experiential marketing, in which a “touch it, feel it, use it” approach creates a “branded experience,” says Walters. The goal is to establish a lasting connection that will differentiate the manufacturer's brand from others in an increasingly competitive retail environment.

It's a message that all retailers need to hear, says Pam Danziser, president of Stevens, Pa.-based Unity Marketing and the author of Why People Buy Things They Don't Need. “Retailers are set up to sell things,” she says. “But if that's the way they're looking at their business, they're missing the boat. Retailers need to reinvent their stores to offer experience.”

Insperience Studio, which opened in November, is only a recent example of the trend. The Viking Range Corp. is taking a similar approach with its nine Viking Culinary Arts Centers, where high-end stoves, refrigerators and range hoods are shown off amid a busy schedule of cooking classes and demonstrations. As with Insperience, the big-ticket appliances aren't for sale on site, although many smaller cooking accessories used in demonstrations are sold.

The Viking centers are in shopping centers, downtown and lifestyle centers from Garden City, New York, to Dallas. There's one in Atlanta, too, just a few miles from Insperience — in fact, it opened the same month. The newest center will be in Legacy Village, a 586,000-square-foot ft. lifestyle center in the Cleveland suburb of Lyndhurst.

Cookware manufacturer Calphalon is also going the experiential route with its Calphalon Culinary Center in Chicago's newly chic near west side — part of the migration of retailers toward the city's downtown (see story on page 154). There, consumers can listen to chefs lecture on their craft or try their own hand at creating dishes — all in a setting that reinforces the value of the Calphalon brand. Another center will open in June on King Street West in Toronto, an area of recently renovated former industrial buildings.

Experiential marketing is more than an opportunity to show off all the bells and whistles of a product, however. “It's all about emotions and feelings, achieving some sort of feeling,” says Danziger. “In effect, you're buying a thing, but that becomes a means to an end — a feeling you gain by owning this thing. What Viking is doing is marketing the experience, recognizing that no one in the world needs a Viking stove; they may want a Viking stove, but they don't need a Viking stove. They are evangelizing and creating their own market.”

The trend is so new that proponents say it's too early to measure results. But marketers are not waiting. They justify the expense because of what the research already proves: Consumers are losing their ability to differentiate among brands. Technological advances have produced a sameness in many products — think of television sets. Changes in customer service have had the same effect. How does a bank whose identity is built around friendly tellers differentiate itself in a world where ATM transactions are the norm?

It's not surprising that appliance makers are in the forefront of experiential marketing. These manufacturers — like automakers — have pricey products that consumers buy infrequently. And, on one level, the products are undifferentiated — you can get to work in a Lexus or in a Ford Focus; you can roast a Thanksgiving turkey in a $200 Kenmore or a $3,800 Viking. “It's intriguing to me that if we look at who understands experiential marketing, first it was autos and now it's appliances — high-end durable goods marketers,” says Danziger.

At Insperience Studio, the goal is to make the appliance-purchasing process something more than a search for the right color at the right price — something more like a lifestyle choice. The facility is designed to be a resource for consumers, a place to bring their builder or architect to help select the equipment that's just right for their lifestyles. (It's no accident that both Insperience and Viking opened facilities in Atlanta, which is the country's hottest city for new single-family homes.)

Insperience has seven separate displays, categorized not by price, says Walters, but by the lifestyle of the consumer: The “Bright Futures” display, for instance, features appliances geared toward young families. “We don't do the ‘good, better, best’ scenario,” she says. “I wouldn't want to be told I'm in the ‘better’ category and not the ‘best.’”

To round things out, the facility offers demonstrations and classes in both cooking and fabric care.

Walters says Insperience primarily is a branding effort that allows Whirlpool and its KitchenAid line to make direct contact with consumers. “Instead of dealing through our third parties, we have the opportunity for one-on-one conversations, and we can see what impact we have on market share,” she says.

It's also a learning laboratory in which the company can study consumer wants and needs and a place to train the sales personal of retail partners in how appliances work. “In the past there was no venue for training,” Walters says. “Salespeople couldn't start the appliances up. Here we do comprehensive, hands-on training so they understand them in depth. Our trade partners really like that.”

“Within the appliance industry it's always easy to do what you've been successful at,” she adds. “But retailing gets more challenging year to year, and we have a more informed consumer now through the Internet and other media. Consumers ask the hard questions, and we as manufacturers have to give them a venue where those questions can be answered.”

To Danziger, these kinds of efforts lead consumers to associate inspiring, stimulating experiences with a particular brand. “When it comes to differentiating products, you need to control the information,” she says.

But customer-loyalty consultant Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys in New York, isn't sure that experiential marketing will prove to be the elixir its proponents hope. “The issue is creating loyalty to a brand, and I don't know that giving consumers the ability to road-test something like a range or a dishwasher makes such a large contribution in terms of loyalty,” he says.

In fact, Passikoff sees experiential marketing as something of a fad. “You're seeing people saying the equivalent of, “We've got to advertise on the Internet.' Why do they need to? Because it's there.”

That might be, but Walters says she has gotten nothing but positive reactions from those who have tried the Insperience experience. “We had one lady who was really into organic cooking who brought her own pans and cookies to try a convection oven,” she says. Another used the showroom to settle a longstanding dispute over which was better, an electric or a gas range.

“People can see the functionality of the product, and that's a really good thing,” she says. “After all, it's not like you're buying a hair dryer.”

RETAIL STRATEGY

PROBLEM

Consumers who don't have an opportunity to see a product in action don't appreciate why one brand is better than another.

SOLUTION

Manufacturers such as Whirlpool, Viking and Calphalon are opening cooking schools and other facilities where shoppers can experience the product.

BUZZ

As brand awareness becomes even more critical, manufacturers and retailers will emphasize feelings and emotions in connection with their products. That's likely to result in more “showroom” facilities stressing the lifestyle benefits of products.

DATA

Whirlpool has opened the 12,000-sq.-ft. Insperience Studio in Atlanta; Viking has nine Culinary Arts Centers in major cities across the country; Calphalon has an 8,000-sq.-ft. Culinary Center in Chicago and will soon open another in Toronto.