Brands, you're doing experiential marketing wrong

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The Outpost, by the Participation Agency.
The Outpost, by the Participation Agency. Credit: The Participation Agency via Facebook

Experiential marketing is the current flavor of the month, especially as broadcast spending dips and digital becomes increasingly fraught. But it's time clients and agencies took a hard look at whether spending millions of dollars on a one-time event is the best use of their investment.

The blink-and-you'll-miss-it event is all well and good, but it's hardly scalable. So instead of investing in one-off (call them "perishable") events, consider taking a cue from another lifestyle trend: The "sustainable" approach to experiential.

"Perishable" to me evokes a one-night party in the Meatpacking District in New York, with a bunch of jaded "influencers" and bloggers checking their phones, while ignoring the very thing that they're meant to have a hand in promoting: the lavish experience around them which cost a fortune to put on (and which generates a tremendous amount of waste in materials and food).

"Sustainable" describes supercool experiences which solve a problem in people's lives, that generate benefit to a community, and do so in ways that are environmentally sustainable.

Check out the Outpost by The Participation Agency, which has clients like Red Bull and Topshop. They came up with their own proprietary idea: a sophisticated rest-stop concept for touring bands, where they can stock up on sponsored products from curated brands to help ease the pain of life on the road.

The first Outpost opened in El Paso, Texas with the second in Asbury Park, N.J., both markets often overlooked by major brands, where dollars go farther than in bigger cities (though the concept is now expanding to include downtown Las Vegas and downtown L.A.).

They carefully select brands (like Dirty Lemon, Marvis and Gibson) to participate in the experience. "We're not looking for clients, we're looking for partners," says Jessica Resler, co-founder and creative director at The Participation Agency. "There is no amount of money that will get you in if you don't share the same ethos."

Another great example is Quiet Mornings, from media and lifestyle brand Flavorpill, which take over some of the world's best contemporary museums like MOMA in New York City and MOCA in L.A., to run guided meditation sessions before the museum opens—giving busy urban-dwellers a chance to clear their heads, and experience the art before it gets busy.

Flavorpill has also taken a similar approach with their Art of Yoga experiential format which has taken over the Brooklyn Museum to stage morning yoga sessions in beautiful settings. (Full disclosure: I did do some work with Flavorpill a number of years ago but am no longer affiliated with them.)

"We're believe people want community focused experiences that are inspiring, inclusive and participatory, and our recent brand partners have all embraced a similar philosophy of how they want to engage with their core audiences," Sascha Lewis, CEO of Flavorpill, which works with brands such as Perrier, WeWork and Ford tells me.

And Ant Demby, the CEO behind "activist idea shop" Humbleriot agrees. "From my perspective, the future of experiential lies in intentional curated moments that feel personal, that transport you somewhere, or remind you of why you love something, and give you the opportunity to feel something. Brands must be students of culture and respect it," he says.

One project that Humbleriot has pioneered is The Playlist Retreat, in collaboration with legendary DJ Jazzy Jeff. "You have to be hand-picked by Jeff to attend and we create this experience at his actual home," says Ant. "It doesn't matter where you are in your career, your contribution to music and who you show up as gets you in the door. There is no significant buildout because the experience lies in the content."

The Playlist Retreat is four days of masterclasses, fireside chats, creative challenges, new tech unveilings and ample opportunities to be vulnerable and getting attendees "re-aligned with their why." The intimate events have featured brand partnerships with Serrato, Ableton, Rolland, GoPro and Red Bull who all focus on building a relationship with creative communities.

One of the other projects Humbleriot is working on is producing the music and cultural programming for is the upcoming EEEEEATSCON food festival in Los Angeles for restaurant guide brand The Infatuation. With like-minded brands like American Express, Stella Artois, Don Julio and Caviar on board, it represents a fresh, innovative take on food festivals, moving beyond the clichéd bite-sized samples and cooking demos, to feature some of the coolest restaurants, alongside live music and insightful panels.

Hopefully examples like these inspire both clients and agencies to innovate with new experiential models where there is a triple bottom line: a return to brands, the community and the planet.

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