Becoming a Third Place

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I have been doing some reading and giving a lot of thought recently to the concept of “the third place.” Turns out that Howard Schultz didn’t invent the concept at all. It actually dates from the 1970s and 1980s and the work of urban sociologists who were exploring how certain businesses come to occupy a central place in the lives of their customers.

Schultz later famously stated that he had set out to make Starbucks the third place in people’s lives; that place between home and work. But, the urban sociology crowd, led by Ray Oldenburg, had been studying the third place phenomenon for years. Oldenburg, in his first book, The Great Good Place, explored how cafés, hair salons, general stores, bars, and other businesses become “hangouts” and important parts of people’s lives; that is, they develop close relationships with customers.

I have also read recently a book by three partners of Cheskin, a California-based marketing consultancy, entitled Making Meaning. It talks about the same subject from a different perspective, suggesting that some companies and brands have been successful in creating “meaning” for their customers. What is somewhat unclear from both approaches to the subject is “how”; how do some businesses come to occupy a place of profound meaning in the lives of their customers, while others in the same line of work get nowhere near such status?

I find the notion of the acquisition of meaning an intriguing one, and one that I believe may hold the key to the establishment of solid, meaningful relationships with customers. How do some brands and firms come to “mean” something truly special to their customers or at least to a percentage of them? I am sure that, to some, Starbucks is nothing more than a coffee shop. While some customers see The Home Depot as their partner in getting things done around the house, others merely think it’s a great place to buy lumber, tools and stuff. In the main, it seems to me, the most successful companies and brands are those that occupy a meaningful place in the hearts and lives of many of their customers.

Those entities with which people have the closest relationships are those who mean the most to them. I believe the next stage in the evolution of our thinking about customer relationships will be focused on gaining a better understanding of “meaning” and how it can be acquired, how your firm or brand can “mean” something special to customers.

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