From ‘glory’ to ‘joy’ – the effect of lighting installations in the retail sector

The Austrian writer, Dr Christian Mikunda, is seen as the founder of the theory of strategic dramaturgy. He was the keynote speaker this year at Christmasworld, the leading international trade fair for festive and seasonal decorations. His lecture examined the psychological mechanisms and dramaturgical devices behind successful light marketing concepts. In the interview, Dr Mikunda explains the significance of lighting and illuminated installations in the retail world, and the role that Christmasworld in Frankfurt am Main plays in this.

Dr Christian Mikunda giving an interview surrounded by light sculptures

Podcast Dr Christian Mikunda

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Dr Mikunda, you are seen as the founder of the theory of strategic (shop) dramaturgy. What can we understand by the term shop dramaturgy?
With shop dramaturgy, it is all about engaging professionally with emotions and experiences. It is about knowing how storytelling works and, above all, understanding that dramaturgy basically begins when you start developing a space. A good spatial development needs to be achieved so that customers have a picture of a familiar place through which they can navigate intuitively. So shop dramaturgy is something that evokes a feeling of familiarity. In order for this to work and to enable a cognitive landscape to emerge, a place needs axes, junctions, distinct areas and markers. By and large, the same is also true for trade fairs: on no account should we end up looking at nothing at the end of an axis – to avoid this, it is enough to position an exhibition stand in such a way that it catches the eye with sparkling elements or vibrant colors. In all the places where axes meet, there is an emphasis on the intersection, which gives us as people the feeling that it is an important location. It is logical for the store owner to place an important centerpiece in exactly this position.

What would you recommend to retailers who want to attract more customers into their stores?
People used to say: If you can’t smile, don’t open a shop! And these words still hold true today. A smile brings emotional added value: it creates a warm atmosphere and an experience. And this, in turn, can be measured. The amount of promotional effect that experiences can have is measured by the AIME value (amount of invested mental effort). In plain language: if we are able to make sense of something, if a story or a picture develops and we have a feeling of elation, the AIME value rises and we can approach what is on offer positively and more attentively. For example, this is exactly the reason why promotional activity has not been exclusively about advertisements for 40 years or so. Just like in the shop itself, we try to give people an experience that will pull them in, so that they are keen to absorb information. This is the reason for the many word plays, picture stories, and slogans in advertising – all of them elements that emotionalize and cause a déjà-vu effect. An experience stimulates interest, which means that people stay in one place for longer.
So these days, a shop can no longer be just a sales location, it needs to convey additional emotional value. This holds an unbelievable range of possibilities. Shop dramaturgy exists so we can begin to talk about and discuss these. Together with my wife, I am working on explaining and defining the psychological mechanisms that lie behind emotions – so that the things that creative people do intuitively can be applied deliberately.

What particular role does light play in all this? How can light enchant us? How can town centers and shops take advantage of this?
In the first place, light installations evoke two psychological mechanisms: the elated feelings of ‘glory’ and ‘joy’.
With ‘glory’, it is all about conveying grandeur: height, depth and breadth. A chandelier, a column of light, sacred buildings, but also Christmas lighting – they all function on the basis of this psychological mechanism. These are elements that draw the gaze upwards, engender a feeling of breadth, and make us feel calm. The reason that we feel this inside is to do with the secretion of the ‘happiness hormone’, serotonin. So if we need a feeling of peace, we go to a place that can give us that: a cathedral, buildings with lofty domes, or perhaps Christmasworld. Because two-thirds of light also works on this level of elated feeling, both with Christmas illuminations and at the point of sale in shops. The lighting arrangements that can be seen here at Christmasworld are being used increasingly frequently in public spaces as well as in shops and malls, not just as temporary Christmas illuminations, but as fixed dramatisation for spaces.
The second elated feeling is ‘joy’. Lighting installations that function on this level evoke a feeling of ecstasy. Flickering, glimmering, visual movements, drop lights, all that sparkles and glitters, release the ‘happiness hormone’, dopamine, in people. In contrast to serotonin, dopamine creates a state of intoxication. Perceptive ability is enhanced, anticipation aroused and we are more receptive to suggestions.

In the first place, light installations evoke two psychological mechanisms: the elated feelings of ‘glory’ and ‘joy’.

Dr. Christian Mikunda

When you think of the Advent season, which lighting installations have particularly stayed in your mind. What were you inspired by and why?
There are two things in particular that have stayed in my mind. One of these is the 17 metre high LED chandelier in Zurich’s main railroad station. Because of its size alone, the chandelier exuded an unbelievable amount of ‘glory’. But in addition to this, the 25,000 LEDs could also be controlled individually. Passers-by were able to select one of any number of different pre-programmed light patterns. The chandelier then played these patterns as a moving light sequence. In this way, not only classic showers of light but also colorful lightplays could be reproduced, and the chandelier evoked the elated feelings of both ‘glory’ and ‘joy’, by combining light and interactivity.
And the other lighting installation that inspires me is to be found on the Christkindlmarkt in Vienna. For about 20 years, the trees around the town hall square have been artistically staged. And the most famous of them, the one that the Viennese love best, is the tree known as the ‘Herzerlbaum’ – it is a big tree, decorated with large, luminous, red plastic hearts, positioned in the right place, that is associated with emotions and tradition: a perfect installation can be as simple as this.

You are at Christmasworld in Frankfurt this year. What does the trade fair for festive and seasonal decorations mean for you, or rather, what added value do you think it brings to retail?
The great thing about Christmasworld is that you can see that a B2B fair an also offer emotional added value. This is not just because of the lighting products exhibited here, which trigger feelings of elation. The stands are also very elaborately designed. Using Christmasworld as an example, you can demonstrate wonderfully which psychological mechanisms are behind a stand concept, which feeling of elation is to be released and how everything comes together. This is because a trade fair is ideally what is called a ‘third place’. The ‘first place’ is our own home, which makes us feel good, and which has an emotional dimension. The ‘second place’ is our individually designed and decorated workplace, conceived as a ‘home away from home’. And the ‘third place’ refers to places we go to, not only to do our own thing quickly and functionally but also to get something from the emotion of the place. So if Christmasworld itself and the Christmasworld exhibitors manage to convey emotions and feelings of elation, they can be sure that these will eventually permeate to the end customer. At best, people do not come here just to make a sales turnover, but also to charge themselves up and to remember why they went into the retail trade, why they became the center manager of a shopping mall, for example, and to see that it is great to be in such an emotionalizing profession. They come to Christmasworld to gaze in astonishment – almost like a child.

Your latest book bears the title ‘Hypno-aesthetics: the ultimate temptation in marketing, retailing and architecture’. What is behind this exactly?
It is all about the ultimate form of seduction, another level above feelings of elation, about ways of appealing that are conveyed subliminally. With storytelling you can always say, it is a story, it is emotional, it has moved me. Even with feelings of elation, it is still pretty simple to define what ‘glory’ is. Or ‘joy’, because it feels as if you should be jumping for joy. However, with hypno-aesthetics, you don’t really know where an emotional appeal comes from. There are four psychological mechanisms that we, my wife and I, have been working on over the last ten years. The two that are particularly important for the lighting business, so also for Christmas and shop lighting in general, are ‘trance’ and ‘art-priming’.
If you stop briefly in front of a Christmas illumination, for example, which is lit with countless strings of lights hanging down, which also flicker and glimmer, then that is an example of ‘glory’ or ‘joy’. But if you look at the whole thing for a few minutes longer, you notice that you’re falling into a trance. At this moment, light behaves just like a pendulum – a calculated sensory overload which results in the eyes glazing over a little, and the body relaxing, so that you quickly forget where you are and why you are there in the first place. The state of trance makes you more open to suggestions. This is the simple reason why there are lighting installations in shopping malls at all and particularly in the run up to Christmas, because it is not just about aesthetics, it is also about selling. However, the emotional impact arising from the sales-promoting effect of the lights only takes hold if the messages that follow the calculated sensory overload are positioned so that they give the customer orientation. The cognitive map, which should develop intuitively in the customer and without which he or she would be lost, comes into play here.
The second mechanism is ‘art-priming’ – lighting installations that are becoming more and more artistic and no longer look like (Christmas) illuminations. Light sculptures are ‘in’ and light projections are also becoming increasingly popular. ‘Priming’ means pre-conditioning, an experience that is indirectly staged. By this I mean that a first stimulus (the prime) is received by the human brain, and this significantly influences the interpretation or reaction to subsequent stimuli. The prime activates an associational field, a cognitive map, through which a connection with our own surroundings is established. Even if the person in question is not aware of this connection, thoughts, emotions and actions always develop in a context. This is good for shops because with these art-priming objects, aesthetic art in other words, the sales location is not seen as such, but rather as a lifestyle or design location, such as a gallery, a museum or a hotel, for example. And because the place has a different impact on us, we also behave differently. With priming, the surroundings and premises are orchestrated, not the object, i.e. the sales location itself – the more subtly this happens, the more effective it is. Lighting is increasingly and ever more frequently used as a means of art-priming. And for this reason, it is my prognosis that there will be more elaborate lighting installations in malls and shops in the future. The entire consumer world of the experience economy is merging more and more with the artistic world, and the two are steadily becoming one.

Next year, Christmasworld will once again be held around the last Saturday of January: 24 to 28 January 2020.

Thank you for the interview!