When The Factory Is A Theme Park

Companies are jazzing up plant tours and store visits to build customer loyalty

Visitors to Ford Motor Co.'s (F ) new truck plant are shaken as a multi-ton metal-stamping press slams shut. Heat rains down from welding sparks, followed by the cooling mist of a paint shop. Too close for comfort? Hardly.

At Ford's historic Rouge manufacturing complex in Dearborn, Mich., tourists will watch the assembly of F-150 pickup trucks from the safety of a mezzanine 16 feet above the factory floor. But they will also get a much more personal feel for the action through multi-sensory special effects spilling out of 360-degree screens in an accompanying video tour. The $14 admission price also buys a history lesson about the 87-year-old Rouge property, where Henry Ford once cranked out the Model A and battled union activists, and a display of Ford vehicles through the ages. The finishing touch: an 80-foot tower from which it's possible to look out over a 10-acre lawn that covers the complex' "living roof," as well as the surrounding crab-apple orchard, beehives, and solar panels.

The Rouge plant is a far cry from the smoke-belching behemoth that was once so polluting that a nearby river caught fire. And Ford's fancy $30 million visitor center, which reopens on May 3, doesn't present your typical factory tour. Rather, it's the latest example of what brand experts call "experiential" marketing. Frustrated by the growing difficulties of reaching consumers through traditional advertising, companies from Mattel Inc. (MAT ) to DaimlerChrysler (DCX ) are adding engrossing personal experiences to drive home the lessons behind their brand.

In Ford's case, that means creating a kind of theme park to make the case that a company with 100 years of history can lead the way toward earth-friendly, 21st century manufacturing. The timing is key. Ford is about to start selling its first gas-electric hybrid vehicles. Bob Rogers, president of Burbank (Calif.) BRC Imagination Arts, which designed the Ford visitors center, says that with 250,000 visitors a year expected, "the corporation will never have a better chance or a more attentive audience to explain its corporate values and its mission."

The beauty of a well-designed factory tour is that while it doesn't reach nearly as many people as a TV spot, it can attract the very consumers who are most likely to buy. Binney & Smith Inc.'s recently updated Crayola Factory in Easton, Pa., shows 375,000 kids and their families each year how crayons are made. But the real focus of the $9-a-head visit is finger painting, drawing, and other, well, hands-on projects using Crayola products in brightly colored play areas. Says marketing consultant Joe Pine, co-founder of Strategic Horizons: "You're getting potential customers to pay you to sell to them."

In a few cases, these "experiences" can be cash cows. Devotees of Mattel's American Girl historically themed dolls flock to its Chicago and New York emporiums, spending hundreds of dollars to take in musical shows, have their dolls' hair styled, or buy party packages. But for the most part, these setups are loss leaders geared at generating word of mouth. And if Ford's high-tech center succeeds in giving even some of its visitors a warm and fuzzy feeling about a manufacturing giant, it'll have pulled off a feat few ad campaigns could match.

By Kathleen Kerwin in Dearborn

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