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How much does style cost?

I spent last weekend in the vast cultural wasteland that is known as Hershey, Pennsylvania.

This is the epicenter of cheap chocolate. More than that, though, it demonstrates a really important principle about design, style and the quest for the remarkable.

Hershey Park is roller coaster heaven. There are wood coasters, metal coasters, coasters that get you soaking wet and coasters for kids. If the point of an amusement park is to offer lots and lots of rides, Hershey Park has it nailed.

But spending even an hour at the park is fatiguing. It’s not just boring, it’s actually demoralizing. Part of this is due to the huge crowds, but hey, it’s a business and they make their money selling tickets, so they’re entitled…

More than ten years ago, Philip Crosby changed the world of manufacturing with his provocatively titled book, “Quality is Free”. The thesis of the book was that it’s actually CHEAPER to make stuff right the first time than it is to fix them later.

In other words, you can make a profit by making your product better. While this seems to be commonsense today, it sure wasn’t then. We were manufacturing junk, because it was fast and we thought it was cheap. The Japanese taught us that it was even cheaper to make stuff that worked.

Well, here’s the corrollary: STYLE IS FREE.

Let me give you some examples from Hershey Park:

Every ride has a few signs you’re expected to read before you get on. The signs are a necessary expense, but that doesn’t explain why they are so ugly. For example, every sign about safety is WRITTEN IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, WITH TIGHT LINE SPACING AND A UNATTRACTIVE, HARD TO READ FONT. Other signs are in gold, in green, in black. Every sign, just about, is different from every other.

The cost of making each sign attractive is precisely zero. Same amount of ink, same amount of wood. Yet if more people read the signs, injuries would decrease, lines would move faster and Hershey would make more money.

While we’re on the topic of signs, I did a count, and there are (this is true, you can check it out) more than 100 different typefaces used on official park signage. Standing on one spot in “Mining Town”, I saw more than 40.

It’s like there was a horrible accident at the type foundry down the road. Imagine reading a book or driving on a highway or operating a car that had more than 40 typefaces displayed simultaneously.

This decentralized, disrespectful method of communication quickly turns into NO communication.

The same sloppiness extends to the choice of foods served, the menu designs, the costumes worn by employees… on and on.

My favorite (hmmm, maybe not favorite) moment came just before we crawled away, defeated. In the midst of all the chaos, a six piece brass band (including a small tuba (a baritone) walked by, playing the theme from Hawaii Five O.

Why one brass band? Why here? Why Hawaii Five O? I have no idea.

In an earlier riff, I talked about my take on “Remarkable.” Remarkable is necessary to market today, because unremarkable products don’t get talked about, they just fade away. And the opposite of remarkable is “very good.”

Trying hard doesn’t make you remarkable. Doing a good job doesn’t make you remarkable. What makes you remarkable is being amazing, outstanding, surprising, elegant and noteworthy.

Hershey is actively spending money (million dollar rides and brass bands) trying to be remarkable, and they are barely ending up as very good.

There is no style at Hershey. It’s not that it’s BAD–there are plenty of examples of bad design that ended up being so distinctive it became good (McDonald’s, for example). No, it’s that they are lazy, or bureaucratic, or stuck. Hershey doesn’t feel like Disney. You won’t remember it after you leave. You won’t talk about it. You couldn’t describe most of the experience even if you tried. There’s no parallel construction to give you a mental map of what you just saw. No hierarchy of what’s important and what’s not. Nothing to look at when you’re not rocketing at a hundred miles an hour.

The funny thing is that this thinking is consistent. The hotel is just as ungupaatch (what a great yiddish word! It means all mixed up with no redeeming value) as the park. And the candy the company makes is boring, non-remarkable and distinctly unstylish. Compare this to the fictional Willie Wonka or the very real Scharffen Berger company.

Does Hershey make money? Sure they do. They’re still profiting from great timing in being first with a mass market chocolate bar at precisely the right moment, and profiting further from running TV ads back when TV ads actually worked. But both those moments are long gone, and it’s a downhill ride from here.

So what’s the lesson? If you run a website, does it look like Hershey Park? If you have a retail establishment or any sort of consumer experience, is it as deadening and boring as Hershey Park?

The Apple Store is the un-Hershey. Here’s a company with so much style, it occasionally gets in the way. But not at the store. At the store, you can grab any three square feet and use them as the DNA to make an entirely new store–and it would be consistent with the original. Just a glance at the store and you know where you are and what it means.

So what? I’ll tell you what. According to Steve Jobs, a huge percentage of visitors to an Apple store don’t own a Mac before they walk in… and do when they leave. The store isn’t just a place to exchange cash for computers… it’s a place to create a genuine emotional branding experience, one that lasts. It’s so cool, people come back with their friends.

Is the design, the lighting, the carpeting choice, the layout–all that stuff–expensive? Nope, it’s free. They had to carpet and build out the store anyway, and the cost is in the thinking and the guts, not necessarily in the fixtures themselves.

Try to imagine Hershey creating actual impact and nostalgia for their brand with Hershey Park. They may have saved a few minutes building the thing, but the complete lack of creativity, magic, imagination or excitment can’t help but bring the brand further down.

Disneyworld may not be your favorite place in the world (me either) but one incredible statistic tells the tale. Every year, more than 20,000 brides choose to have their wedding there.

Think many people got married last weekend at Hershey Park?