Want to Really Serve Consumers? Offer Them an Experience

Talk of Brand Building as Noble Mission Clouds Basic Purpose of Marketing

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Here's a prediction for 2013: Experience marketing will overtake do-good marketing as the Next Big Thing. And it can't come soon enough for me.

Visa sweepstakes offers face time with John Madden.
Visa sweepstakes offers face time with John Madden.

All this talk about how brand building is a noble mission clouds the basic purpose of marketing and also creates a disconnect with the CEO. Non-marketers attending an Association of National Advertisers conference in the past few years would think they'd stumbled upon an evangelical meeting, so intense was the zeal of "serving" the consumer.

The problem with do-good marketing is that it does nothing to help the brand become more authentic and relevant -- other than to make consumers feel all warm and fuzzy.

Experience marketing, on the other hand, is rooted in enhancing a direct consumer connection with the brand.

"Consumers are very focused on experiences right now," Cheryl Guerin, senior VP at MasterCard, told Crain's Chicago Business. "It's a movement from being a collector of things to being a collector of experiences and stories that last a lot longer than the purchase of an item."

As part of the Priceless Cities program, MasterCard in Chicago has been offering members the chance to play catch in the Wrigley Field outfield for $100 or see and hear live music at the Shedd Aquarium for $20.

The credit-card companies, of course, have been offering "behind the ropes" events and sit-downs with famous people for years. Visa is running spots during NFL football games for a sweepstakes and the winners get to watch football with John Madden at his personal viewing studio or be in the locker room to hear the San Francisco 49ers coach deliver his game-day pep talk.

Boston-based HipHost, available in 131 cities, offers quirkier, inexpensive experiences that are not curated. For example, a typical tour for budding photographers led by a professional costs $100. Participants get a look at hidden graffiti art or go on a Fabric Lovers' Paradise outing.

HipHost founder Mario Ricciardelli told Crain's that these events resonate with consumers who are eager for more authentic ways to connect offline. "It's the whole idea of collaborative consumption -- people are now sharing their space, knowledge, you name it."

The food industry, like many others, is going through transformational times, as the foodie customer, especially, is searching for more authentic experiences.

"For a confluence of reasons -- global recession, social media, foodie-ism -- restaurants have been dislodged from their traditional fixed spots and are loose on the land," according to a New Yorker article about the rise of underground supper clubs. "Established chefs, between gigs, squat in vacant commercial kitchens: pop-ups. Young, undercapitalized cooks with catchy ideas go in search of drunken undergraduates: gourmet food trucks.

"Around the world, cooks, both trained and not, are hosting sporadic, legally questionable supper clubs and dinner parties in unofficial spaces."

The audience, as The New Yorker points out, is defined by the quest for "pursuit of singular food experiences."

Foodies are increasingly influenced by films, shows and all manner of popular culture, as we noted in a cover report on eating trends. To pick up on this evolution, Bon Appetit magazine has broadened its focus to more coverage of restaurants, travel and home entertainment.

Even mainstream products are trying to move up the food chain to target more sophisticated palates. Kettle brand potato chips, for instance, is repositioning itself to appeal to foodies, who are a better target to appreciate the chips' authenticity than consumers with less-discerning tastes.

Consumers want, above all, authenticity, and that means they are getting to know as much as possible about what they consume. They want to eat food where it originates; they want to pick up their new car off the factory floor and drive it over the roads where on which it was engineered to be driven.

And the more they learn about the goods they want or the cars they drive or the chairs they sit in or the tables they put their feet up on, the more valuable and entrenched those brands become.

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