Hopefully you enjoy riddles. It is late Sunday afternoon, 4:30 pm to be exact. Too early for valet parking at Fogo de Chao, a wonderful Brazilian steakhouse, so you drive two blocks and enter a parking lot with the following sign:

You had a very nice dinner and now you’re ready to leave the parking lot at 6:15 pm. Based on the above sign (and contract, by the way), how much do you owe the parking attendant? Instead of humming the Jeopardy thinking music theme song, might I suggest you consider humming the 1970 Five Man Electrical Band tune “Signs” during your calculation. And for any ’70s challenged folk, I’ll prime the pump for you: “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign, blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind, do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”

Simple sign, simple question, simple answer, right? I thought so, at first, but apparently not. Well after the fact, my rather informal survey yielded four different answers from four different people:

  1. $3.50
  2. $6.50
  3. $11.00
  4. $14.50

So, what is your answer? One of the above, or none of the above? I chose Door No. 2.

OK, because I entered the lot before 5pm and was ready to leave the lot after 5pm, I offered to pay $6.50, for spending 1-2 hours in the lot, but was told I had to pay the $11.00 “Weekend Night Rate” to exit the lot, unless I wanted to call the police and convince them otherwise. Really.

After a rather frustrating face-to-face discussion with the attendant and an even more frustrating telephone discussion with the night manager on duty (this guy seemed to be a Five Man Electrical Band fan with a heavy emphasis on the “can’t you read the sign?” lyrics), I declined the offer to call 911, paid the $11.00, and took it up with parking lot management bright and early on Monday morning. After speaking with a total four different employees, I was left with the firm conviction that they “knew” I owed $11.00, because they “knew” what they meant the sign to say, yet my fine legal training told me otherwise because neither the “Night Rate” exception (enter after 5pm) nor the “Weekend Day Rate” exception (valid 5am-5pm) applied to my situation.

Anyway, this negative brand experience got me thinking about how important good, clear, and accurate signs are to building favorable and positive brand experiences. It also got me thinking about what makes a good sign, and putting aesthetics and design aside, because those topics are better left for our talented pool of Guest Bloggers, I came up with two key elements: (1) simplicity; and (2) accuracy. In fact, I submit that if either is lacking it can lead to a negative brand experience — one where the sign and the brand the sign represents are out of sync or not on the same page, so to speak (assuming, of course, one promise of the brand is a favorable experience).

By way of dramatic contrast, the favorable brand experience I had at Fogo really reinforced and illustrated this point. Indeed, one of the “signs” that Fogo is known for is the two-sided disk — one side red, the flip-side green. Everyone at the table gets one. The Fogo disk sign easily satisfies the simplicity portion of my two-part sign test:

“Each guest uses a two-sided disk to control the pace of their meal. The green side signals the Gaucho chefs to bring out skewers of sizzling fire-roasted meats to carve at the table. The red side indicates a stopping point. Turning back to green lets the Gaucho chefs know to start offering the meats again.”

Not only is the Fogo disk sign simple, it is accurate too. The Gaucho chefs don’t bother you when you desire a “stopping point,” (perhaps to loosen your belt) unless someone sitting next to you plays a childhood prank by quietly flipping your disk back to green, as my giggling children learned quickly, and as the Gaucho chefs seem to have seen more than a few times before. So, the Fogo disk sign reinforces the Fogo brand and creates at least the opportunity for a positive brand experience because it is both simple and accurate.

As an aside, for you trademark types who enjoy riddles, no, it doesn’t appear that Fogo views the two-sided disk as a trademark, at least it hasn’t attempted to register it as one yet, despite owning two other rather interesting non-traditional trademarks, including five vertical skewers of meat surrounding a campfire, and a chimney design. I’m thinking that the above quote from Fogo’s website would make it rather difficult to overcome a functionality refusal on the two-sided disk, at least as a non-conventional trademark.

Anyway, to wrap things up, back to the parking lot part of the story. The fourth person I spoke to, the person with whom “the buck stops,” had a much different view of the parking lot brand than the previous three. So, not only can poor business signs get in the way of positive brand experiences, but obviously, employees who don’t live up to the company’s brand promises can too. I was eventually told “we want to keep you as a customer,” despite what the others said. In fact, I was mailed a full refund (more than I asked for) and I cashed the check a couple of days ago, just in time to feel safe running with this blog post. And, in case you’re wondering, I am also informed that the sign is being “re-done,” so let’s just consider this whole exercise a public service.