[Podcast] Experiential Branding (Light & Atmosphere) with Matt Clutterham

[Podcast] Experiential Branding (Light & Atmosphere) with Matt Clutterham

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Level up your understanding of experience design with this enlightening episode.

Brands are more than just logos and fonts.

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They are experiences from which consumers formulate meaning.

In this episode we sit down with Matthew Clutterham who has been creating experiences for global brands for over 20 years.

We pick his brains to discuss the power of lighting to effect mood and how using it can enhance the way brands are experienced by customers.

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Transcript (Auto Generated)

Hello, and welcome to JUST Branding, the only podcast dedicated to helping designers and entrepreneurs grow brands. Here are your hosts, Jacob Cass and Matt Davies.

Hello, everybody, and welcome to another episode of JUST Branding. And today, we have got Matt Clutterham with us. Matt is a brand strategist and consultant from the UK, from my neck of the woods.

And he has a background in experiential branding, in live events, in particularly a speciality in lighting. So I’m really excited to tuck into that with Matt shortly. But what does Matt do?

Well, he helps leaders and founders with bold strategies for brand and transformation. He’s a creative, he’s a speaker, he’s a board member, and he’s a founder. So we really are going to have a lot to get into with Matt.

Welcome, Matt, to the show.

Hi, Matt. Hi, Jacob.

Hey, Matt. First off, thanks for wearing pink on the show. I just had to let everyone know.


Oh dear. Hopefully this is going out in black and white and we’ll get to that one.


Yeah. Thanks so much, Matt. Well, I guess it would be great to just kick off with a bit about your story and your background so that folks get to kind of understand your journey.

So perhaps you could give us the Matt story.

Yeah. So started early. Creativity has always sort of been there right from an early age.

As far back as I can remember, I was always sort of scribbling on paper, drawing. It was never really sort of art based. I would say it always had a design technical element to it.

Then I went forward through school. I always sort of tried to find a way to skip the more academic subjects and push towards creativity, including getting out of sports day by lighting the school show. That’s kind of where I started really.

So I progressed from that into theater. I decided that lighting was something that really spoke to me.

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Matt, how did you get to lighting? How do you just jump to lighting?

So my dad was in lighting in his early career. He moved into venue management in theaters after that. But yeah, it was always there.

I don’t think they really wanted me to go down that route. I think I was encouraged away.

Okay. So you’re exposed to the lighting or theater industry through you folks.

I was. Yeah. Yeah, for sure.

And at the time I looked and at the time there was no academic qualification in lighting. There’s quite a few now. But at the time, the only degree you could do was at UCLA in California.

And that was just so cost prohibitive for me that that wasn’t possible. So I went in on this sort of ground as it were as a technician. I started off, packed my bags and moved to London and to find the golden streets and ended up in the West End knocking on stage doors and got a job right at the bottom.

Worked my way up a bit, went out on tour with a few theatre shows, a few music groups, including Prodigy and People, people like that. Some quite big projects. Surrounded myself with some quite sort of big and influential people.

And one person took me under their wing and said, look, what you’re doing is great, but I think you’re missing a really important point. And that’s what we’re trying to do here. And that’s, we’re trying to tell a story to the audience and we’re trying to make them feel something emotionally.

And lighting is a really powerful tool to do that. And I sort of stopped and thought about it and realized that he was right. And I started to really geek out on that and went in really deep.

And yeah, the story went on from there really, but with much more of a psychological focus, which set me apart quite a bit in the industry.

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I’m excited to delve into that, to understand what you were doing before and then what you’re doing after when you added storytelling and emotion into it.

I would say it’s sort of… I hear a similar story from people who’ve come through the graphic design route, really, is I started off. And I think what most people do actually still in the industry is to make things look pretty.

Like that’s the goal. That’s the primary goal. Let’s make things look great, look pretty.

And actually, if you dive deeper into the psychology of what we’re trying to do, which is human connection and furthering a story, there’s so much more power there to be had.

I’m going to let Matt take control again. I kind of hijacked this episode, but…

I know he does it. He said to me before, just for the listeners sake, Matt, you’re going to drive this. And I don’t think I could get a word in any way, so I’ve just been sitting back.

No, not at all.

I think that’s a super interesting story, Matt, and to bring those skills into brand building from a theatrical background, definitely I can see the power of what that could do for a brand, particularly with this concept of storytelling behind it. I think we’d love to tuck into some of the thinking around that. So perhaps we could take kind of a bit of a step back and just sort of start at a high level, though.

If I was to ask you, how do you kind of… What’s the process, right? How do you determine how to create an atmosphere, what the right type of atmosphere is?

How do you select venues, the lighting? What’s your sort of methodology, I guess, for creating amazing brand experiences?

We should step back one step further than that and just talk about light as a principle, because that will better let us understand the methodologies going forward. Light is really deeply ingrained into our story as humans. It has immense power right back to beyond caveman times.

Light controls our circadian rhythms, the color temperature.

What’s that?

So circadian rhythm is your natural internal atomic clock, if you like. So particularly before the days of technology, you would wake and begin your day as the sun rose and you would end it as the sun set. Obviously, technology has advanced that thinking, but that atomic clock is still there.

So our whole internal frame and system is influenced greatly by light, the intensity of light, and particularly the color temperature of light. So the best way to describe that is you know how you feel differently in your body when you step out of your door on holiday to a bright sunny day, then you do Matt when you step out of your office into the cold Welsh winter morning.

Completely different feeling in your body, like completely. And temperature does play a part in that, but it’s mainly light and it’s mainly the color temperature of light. And I would say that light has, like in brand building with personality, light has personality and archetypes.

I’ve just sort of shared two of them with you, the sort of bright sort of sunny feeling and the very dark wintery feeling. When we know that we have that sort of ingrained influence over someone’s feelings, when we know what types of light quality and color temperatures affect those moods, then we can create them intentionally so that we can use that to further storytelling and further focus and sort of emotional connection with the audience, because we can literally make them feel something. Amazing.

So I guess the way we start is to understand… I like to ask lots of questions. That’s really helped then moving across into brand strategy, obviously.

But I will start with two questions. What’s the story we’re trying to tell? And what do we want the audience to feel?

And in the feeling side, what journey are we taking the audience on through this story? Because the most powerful stories have peaks and troughs and highs and lows, and we can really help with that with light. The same way that you do with music.

Music and light are very closely ingrained together in how they affect us emotionally and psychologically.

And do you mainly look at this on a campaign event by event basis, or do you ever kind of brands come and say, you know what, create us a light strategy or an emotion strategy that will roll out across multiple venues at multiple times? Like, how do you sort of attack it?

Yeah, so it has always tended to be campaign by campaign and event by event. But I’ve generally found that when I’ve started to work with a brand, they wanted me to do their events going forward, so there’s a through line through that. So where there’s no sort of formal written strategy, if it’s me on the project, there will be a through line.

Yeah, makes sense. Makes sense. So you asked those questions, so let’s do a hypothetical exercise, right?

Would you open to play this with me?


Let’s imagine I am a luxury watch brand, right? I’m a brand manager for a luxury watch brand, and I am selling to, you know, it’s luxury, so I’m selling to glamorous people, okay? And I’ve got a venue in, let’s go Milan, why not, right?

So we’re in Milan, we’ve got a lovely venue, it’s a modern, it’s an art gallery, okay? But we’ve hired it for a few days, we’re going to put a full event on, we’re going to have all the designers there, we’re going to have celebrities turn up, all that stuff. I call you in, I say, Matt, this is the story, right?

You know, you asked me those questions, so I guess what I would say is, you know, the journey we’re bringing people on is that we want them to feel really excited and inspired by the detail in our watches, and we, you know, basically want them to feel like uplifted. We’re going to have, probably have champagne and stuff like that around. That’s what I’m imagining.

What other kind of questions might you ask, and then how would you take that forward?

Okay, so I’d want to know the kind of flow of the day or the evening so that I can understand where we need to put the peaks and where we need to put the troughs. I’d want to know what is our key? What do we want to focus most attention on?

Because light also has a very powerful psychologically way of focusing attention. An example of this is if you had 200 people on stage in a dark room and you lit them all evenly, if you increase the intensity of light on one of those 100 people, 98% of the audience will only focus on that one person, which I find truly staggering, but it’s another way that we have focusable attention. In film or TV, you use the camera to focus the audience’s attention exactly where you want it for every frame.

In a live experience, you can’t do that, so we use the intensity of light and dark. I’d want to know what the focus was and what products we’d have in the room that we wanted to focus attention on and when. Just in general terms, I would say high luxury, normally in an event and lighting context means high contrast.

I would want to have a lot of darkness in the room because that’s as powerful as the light. The negative space is as powerful as the positive, and I’d really want to bring it down to focus on the product.

Nice. Yeah, brilliant. I don’t know how far we can take this, but I’m just imagining.

We’ve got the entrance experience. We’re going to have people coming in. Let’s take it in the evening.

We’re going to have gallery style with the watches in the little cabinets around the room, but then we’re going to have drinks and champagne, and then at some point we’re going to have a brand video that’s going to launch our new season of watches, and we are going to have a couple of speeches, and then models are going to walk around the room and mingle with the crowd, and there will be nibbles, and then it will be, I don’t know, that will be a lovely sophisticated evening, and then we’ll finish at about 11 o’clock. What do you reckon? So that would be my brief, and then you would go around and think, okay, so as you say, peaks and troughs, that whole experience, I guess, would you map it out?

Would you walk through it and then plan all of that side and create a full experience, immersive experience, I guess? Do you ever do music as well in this, or do you partner with somebody else to do?

I do work closely with music quite a lot of the time in the live event space because they are so powerful together. I don’t do it myself, but I would work with a composer or an arranger who is already working with the client. Same with the room design.

There will generally be another designer who’s dealing with room design, and so it’s a really close relationship of collaboration between us two as well. We always have to deal with what I call the branding police, who will basically just want the space lit in the identifiable brand colors from the style guide, which doesn’t really work in a lighting and live context.

Jacob, no pink for you, mate.

Pink’s one of the ones that does, actually.

Don’t tell him that, Matt. There are several examples where the branding police will hand me a style guide and say, you can only use these colors. And I’m like, yeah, great.

But if you look at the breakdown of those colors, they’re 80% black content, which is basically lights off.

Yeah, because I suppose color, you know, it’s like, if I remember correctly from my designer days, there’s the RGB, which is where it’s like the, I mean, this is me really going crazy now, but it’s like the projected light, whereas CMYK is the inks, isn’t it? So the pigments are the inks, and then you’ve got Pantone colors. But the RGB is the lit, I guess, the lit version of that, if I bear that in mind.

And it’s not quite the same, is it, when you go into…

No, the real basic difference is that generally in sort of graphic design and screen design, it’s additive color mixing. So you’re starting with white and you’re adding color to white. But in lighting, it’s actually subtractive.

So we start with white light, which is every color, and we remove all the colors that we don’t want to see. So for JUST Branding Pink, it would be everything but pink that we remove from the light source. How do you do that?

We do that. There’s a number of ways. LED technology has simplified that down for us.

But in the old days, which aren’t that long ago, it would be through sheets of colored acetone. And a bit like the Pantone library, we would have a library of different tones, a thousand, hundreds of thousands of them. And we would order that and cut them to size, and they would go in the front of the lights.

So they’re not using that anymore as more LED?

Less and less, yeah, technology has moved far more to LED, because it gives us more creative freedom on site.

So as you can tweak it, they’ve got you there and then, you know, if necessary.

Absolutely. And you can vary it over the course of the event. Whereas graphic design is two-dimensional, spatial design is three-dimensional, lighting design is four-dimensional, because we’ve also got the timeline.

So it’s not a static visual that we’re ever looking at. It’s constantly evolving.

Sounds challenging.

Well, like your watch company, I have to be a little bit careful because there’s NDAs at play. But I did an event similar to what you were talking about, Matt, in London last year for a huge Scottish whiskey company. So we turned several rooms of the Saatchi Gallery into a Scottish moorland with a Scottish hut in the middle of it, where very, very expensive whiskey was tasted by the clientele in a setting where it is more closely linked to the brand story.

Tell us, walk us through, how did you light it and what was the experience?

So the first thing we do is completely black out the rooms, make them completely black spaces, negative space, and then the set designers put in all the elements physically of a Scottish moorland, grassland, trees, huge printed skies and video walls with moving skies on, built an actual what’s called a Scottish body in the middle of it, which is a sort of, you know, it’s a bit like your office, Matt, actually, to be honest, but in Scotland. And then it’s my job to basically, because we’re in a complete black box, is to help the audience feel like they’re in Scotland. So we work with the colour temperature.

We decided that we wanted the client’s mood to elevate through the process. Obviously that was happening organically through the amount of whisky they were tasting, but we wanted to really reinforce that feeling. So I decided that we would start with people entering at dawn, really early dawn, and over the process of their tasting experience, we would basically have sunrise, which is really psychologically uplifting in the spirit.

And they would end the experience at sort of mid morning.

Nothing like whisky in the morning.

And that same sunrise then happened 30 times that day.

All right, so let’s sort of shift this a little bit. What would you say your top tips would be to anybody listening to this podcast thinking, oh, this sounds amazing. Like, maybe you’re not in a high-end Milan watch-making business or maybe you’re not a whiskey company, but let’s imagine you’ve got a typical corporate event coming up, maybe an exhibition or something like this, and you’re listening to this podcast, you manage a brand.

What would your top tips be for anybody kind of thinking about the lighting and creating an experience around their brand?

So the top tips I would say are, decide where you want to focus attention and make sure that that is lit in a higher intensity. If it’s a long event, don’t make the room too dark and the stage too bright because that really, over the course of a long process, especially a couple of days, which most corporate conferences and things, team alignment, that sort of thing tends to be. Delegate fatigue is a real issue and the lighting can really have a huge impact on that.

High contrast spaces, lots of sort of corporate blue up-lighters and very bright spaces can really impact how long your delegates last basically mentally. So focus on balance, balance of the room and try and keep it relatively balanced. Decide on the story you want to tell and work out if there’s ways of using light and particularly the color temperature of light from warm to cold of how you can reinforce that story.

And light is, although I’ve sort of dissed the branding police, one of the…

Hey, you come on JUST Branding and diss the branding.

But yeah, the branding police I’m talking about aren’t the branders, they’re the people in the corporate spaces tasked with maintaining a brand with very little understanding of what the brand actually means, stands for. I come across it all the time. It’s…

And I don’t really understand how that happens. I mean, I will quite often ask the question of, yeah, okay, I’ll get what you’re telling me, but can you tell me why? And it’s very rare that someone can.

But yeah, so having dissed the branding police, light is a good opportunity to reinforce brand color and to anchor that psychologically to a powerful emotional experience, such as an event. Yeah, I think they would be my main tips really. Where do you want to focus attention?

What story are you trying to tell and how can you use light to help that? Don’t fatigue your audience. And if you can use light to anchor the branding elements, then even more powerful for the brand going forward once the event is over.

So what I’m hearing here is, as we always say on JUST Branding, you’ve got to look at things from the perspective of the consumer or the customer, or in this case, the person experiencing the event. So we’ve got to put ourselves in their shoes. And then as you say, it’s then balancing that with the brand, the intention, the story, the emotion, what the strategy, I guess, is of the event that you’re trying to put on and the positioning of the brand and the highs and lows and the story and all of that stuff.

You’ve got to kind of use then the tools available to you to really amplify that experience, make it phenomenally exciting and inspirational for the people that are going to be going through it. And I just think it’s so amazing, as you say, when you really think about, you know, my phrase is that brand is the meaning that other people attach to you and your offer. And then branding is the attempt to manage the meaning.

And when you go into experiential branding, then, you know, it’s, there’s so, it’s like a, as you say, it’s like four dimensions. It’s there’s so much that people should be considering and thinking about to really create those amazing experiences. And, you know, we’ve touched on, you know, a couple of examples of very high-end brands.

And my kind of lesson that I’m taking away from that is, look, you know, if luxury high-end brands take all of these things so seriously, right? Why don’t you, right? In whatever brand you’re managing, take those things really seriously and consider the canvas that you’ve got, which as you say, is like, it’s time, it’s light, it’s sound, it’s the whole thing.

And, you know, thanks so much for like opening that up. I think that’s such an interesting kind of thing for everybody to think through. There’s a lot more to this than meets the eye, if you like.

For sure, for sure. But I think the basics of it is, I think like the three of us would agree, and I think most of your audience would agree that, you know, if we understand brand as the gut feeling that someone has about your product, service, et cetera, et cetera, then I can’t remember the exact percentages, but, you know, you get a certain percentage of engagement by reading something, by watching something, by doing. The highest by far every time is if you experience something firsthand.

And if we can really amp up the emotional connection of that experience to the person, that leaves a huge legacy for the brand going forward, as long as it’s positive.

Yeah, I always find it quite bizarre that, you know, a lot of retail experiences are exactly the same, right? Like, I do find it strange that, you know, there’s probably loads of opportunity, I would always think, in retail, because yes, there’s some norms, isn’t there? Some expected norms.

And you don’t want to disrupt people too much because you don’t want to get in the way of their purchasing. But, you know, have you ever considered or have you ever had experience, you know, trying to or considered that side of things, the retail side of things, and how people come into shops and that side of things? I imagine there is a lot of thinking that goes on that I’m just not aware of in that space, but what’s your experience in that?

There are, and there are lighting designers who specialize in retail lighting design, and there is a lot of psychological thought that goes into certainly the bigger stores and particularly in things like clothing. There are color temperatures of light that make clothing look far more vivid and appealing in store. I mean, you will probably recognize the experience of buying something in store and think that’s awesome, and getting it out to daylight and going, well, that’s not quite the same.

I have done the lighting design for a chain of Thai restaurants in London. I thought that might be quite interesting as a side thing. It wasn’t really for me.

I just didn’t get much out of it. I thought the process was interesting to go through. I have done some Christmas shop windows for people like Selfridges, and that was more interesting, because I guess it was a bit more theatrical, more storytelling than a restaurant.

Yeah, I suppose hospitality, you do see a lot of that interior design and that side of things. I suppose it all comes into play. Amazing.

Well, let me ask another question. Have you got any horror stories? I guess lessons learned, I suppose, would be one.

You mentioned the Thai restaurant. It wasn’t for you. It didn’t light you up.

What sort of what lessons have you learned over the years for unsuccessful, experiential, particularly lighting of events or whatever?

I guess the biggest lesson that hit me quite a lot until I learned it early on in my career was the need to be agile in both my thinking and my response to situations. In live, we only get one shot. We get one shot.

The audience is arriving at a certain time and it’s got to be ready and it’s got to be right. And we get one chance to influence that person for that moment. And I’ve always sort of prescribed to the SAS’s mantra of proper planning and performance prevents piss poor, proper planning and preparation prevents piss poor performance.

So I really always go deep down into the planning and preparation behind projects, the strategies behind it, what we’re going to do. But that early on kept me quite rigid and stuck in my thinking and my approach. And some stuff went horrendously wrong when things didn’t show up the way I expected to.

I did a big launch of a new gas refinery in the Middle East and turned up to find that none of the equipment spec was as my 200 paid brief to the local suppliers were completely different. And I struggled. I really struggled.

I don’t think I would now. I think my thinking is agile enough to be able to turn something great out of that. But I just kind of froze and it wasn’t good.

It wasn’t good. And the client knew it wasn’t good. But we learn from those things.

Yeah, yeah.

As you say, the live space is high pressure, isn’t it? If it starts to go wrong, it’s not great. I suppose the difficulty in that sort of circumstances, if it wasn’t your fault, it reflects on you that lighting is poor.

But it’s like, well, hold on. You did everything you could to get that spec to where it is. So I can understand the stress and the frustration that would happen from that.

But yeah, you’re right. I suppose you’ve got to keep the customer in mind, do the best with what you’ve got at that moment to make sure it’s the best it can be. And you can’t do more than your best, I suppose.

Yeah, no, sure. And like the branding agency I was working for in that context, completely understood the situation and they were fine. But the prince of the country who owned the gas refinery doesn’t care.

You chop your head off. If you’re not careful. Off with his head.

Right. Well, I think we’ll start to think about wrapping a few things up, I suppose. I guess it would be great to understand where you’re at now.

I know you have recently launched something called Qbranch. Do you want to talk to us a little bit about that and what’s your current focus going forwards? And then perhaps we’ll wrap up after that.

Yeah, Qbranch is a new venture for me and my business partner. And if I rewind slightly, so my focus has always been the philosophy. And when I started to dive deeper into the brand strategy through the brand launches and brand events that I’ve done, I started to become really interested in the brand strategy side behind everything.

And that became my new sort of geek out. And then for several years, but I didn’t really do anything about it. And then 2020 hit and the event world closed in a heartbeat.

And it closed overnight and it didn’t come back for a long time. And I thought, okay, well, now’s the time to do something about it. So I switched into the brand strategy role with a real desire to bring the big brand thinking to SMEs, because I think the principles and the strategies of the big brands can be applied to SMEs without the big brand price tag.

So that became my new sort of focus. But I discovered a problem, and that was that we all agree that, you know, particularly you, Jacob, with your new standard flock out, that we’ve got to be big and bold in our strategies if we hope to stand out in what is noise everywhere now in every market. And we also have to be, as I’ve already said, really agile to change.

And the pace of change in business, particularly in the SME space, is rapid and accelerating. And they’re both two things that we, as humans, find inherently difficult to deal with. We find it very difficult to be bold and stand out.

It evokes all sorts of sort of cognitive biases, and the same with change. So I started to bring a coach in on my projects. Not a sort of $12 coach, someone who’s highly trained and in the field, and also in NLP, which is neuro-linguistic programming.

And the difference that having her work alongside me in tandem made to whether our clients were able to actually implement was staggering and huge. And the difference it made to the answers that I was getting in workshops was staggering and huge, because she could call out things that I couldn’t see when, for instance, someone’s body language didn’t match the words that were coming out of their mouth. And we could deal with those situations there and then, which I couldn’t do on my own.

And many clients just started saying to us, you know, the difference you’re making the two of you together is something we’ve not experienced before, and we think more people need it. So, you know, that’s all the Q I needed, really.

Nice. We’ll do another episode on NLP. That sounds really exciting.

It’s fascinating, really fascinating. And yeah, so Q Branch’s mission is to, yeah, bring the big brand knowledge and experience that I’ve got to SMEs for a fraction of the cost, but also bring in the psychological and emotional support tools that SME leaders need to stand out, be noticed and deal with rapid change. And that’s really our focus.

Exciting. So you’re doing any of the lighting stuff still, or are you sort of transitioning more into a strategic role at the moment?

Yeah, I would say I’m sort of 90% transitioned. I still have a real passion for the lighting side, and I will take on projects that really light me up. Thanks Matt for that.

If it’s a project I’m really passionate about or people that I really want to work with, then sure, I will absolutely take those projects on. But Q branch is the main focus. I think I can make much more difference long term to people’s lives through that route, and that’s what I want to do.

Amazing. Great. Any final questions, Jacob?

Where can we find you? LinkedIn is the first place, Matt Clutterham. There’s really not very many of us, so quite easy to find.

I love to connect with people there. That’s the main platform. Also Instagram.

And if you want to check out what Q branch has to offer, then it’s qbranch.consulting.

Fantastic. Well, there we are. Well, thanks so much for carving out some time to speak to us.

Fascinating world of lighting and experiential branding that you’ve explored. And good luck with Q branch. Thanks so much, Matt.

Thank you. Thanks, guys.

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