“It’s not news to anyone: Traditional advertising is on the decline,” says Jenna Marone, executive vice president of lifestyle at United Entertainment Group. “Experiential humanizes a brand to a consumer. It gives them intimate access. It allows them to tell unique stories.”
Consumers today not only favor brands that can deliver on personalization and authenticity, but have started to demand it outright. Despite the differences between millennials and Gen Zers, one of the things they share in common is the value they place on experiences. That’s part of the reason experiential marketing has seen such an uptick in recent years, giving brands the ability to connect with consumers face-to-face and the opportunity to exercise more control over how people perceive them.
Four experts from the Amp community tell us why experiential marketing matters, and why one activation falls flat while another one soars.
Jenna Marone, Executive Vice President, Lifestyle, United Entertainment Group
The opportunity: We have always looked at experiential not just as a way for brands to connect with consumers but also for social sharing. These are the largest and most important metrics to build into any experiential activation. The bigger potential of experiential for us is influencer [marketing]. The younger demographic is looking to influencers for inspiration, education and information. Experiential is a bit like a tree falling in a forest: It’s great when brands get that one-on-one engagement with consumers, but we want people to share well beyond what they’re experiencing on-site.
Why it matters: As we continue to evolve in the mobile technology space, it’s important for brands to break through to consumers' personal feeds. That’s where they can be seen and heard. If we couple it with the increasing demand for brands that we see [from] millennials and Gen Z—more transparency, more personalization—experiential can actually do that. When you can have an opportunity to connect with a consumer individually but also provide content that is breaking through their feed, that’s a win and that’s what is going to outplay more traditional tactics.
Trends: Consumers are looking for simple ways to integrate into experience design, whether through their mobile phones or a simple interface on-site. On the flipside, clients are looking for organic ways to capture data. Experiential has always been tough to measure from an ROI perspective, but we can show value in terms of capturing lead generation, delivering on sales, or even just having post-event conversations and follow-ups. We will also continue to see more brands weaving purpose into their work. At Essence Festival over Fourth of July, Dove was promoting the CROWN Act—legislation to end hair discrimination. Through our work at Essence alone, the brand garnered over 8,000 signatures during the three-day festival.
We should continue to shy away from experiences that lack a true brand strategy and narrative at their core. Consumers call out a brand anytime something seems inauthentic or done before.
Wow-worthy activations: American Express does an amazing job at experiential. They have the luxury of a data engine built into their brand and they do so well at mining it for unique behavioral insights, and crafting tailored experiences for a consumer: whether it's their Platinum House at Coachella or an intimate dinner with David Chang around the Rose Gold Card, you feel valued as a consumer. Because of that, you’re recommending and talking about your card to people at dinner when you throw it down.
We did a campaign for The North Face called “Explore Mode" for Earth Day. We came up with this idea of getting people to agree to disconnect from their devices and explore the world around them: You could attend an event where famed chef Angela Dimayuga took you on a double decker bus around the city to some of her most unexplored food locations—but only if you locked up your bag and didn’t have access to your phone. We did a series of these events across the country, and the brand asked people to sign a petition to make Earth Day a national holiday.
How to do better: Taking a page from The North Face, get out and explore. You get a good sense of what’s good and what’s not really quickly. You get to put yourself in the shoes of the consumers and better understand the mindset. Follow brands on Instagram that are doing it right—the Targets, the American Expresses, the "Game of Thrones" activation at SXSW—ones that everybody is watching. Pay attention to the big moments where experiential plays a lead role from a cultural perspective.
Conor Brady, Chief Creative Officer, Critical Mass
The opportunity: As programmatic and other forms of advertising increasingly saturate consumers with campaigns, it becomes harder and harder for brands to make an impression. On top of that, everyone more or less follows the same social platform playbook. In that kind of environment, it can seem like the only way to rise to the top is to spend more and more on media. When a brand can’t or doesn’t want to keep playing that game, we help them embrace experiential marketing and break the cycle.
Why it matters: Experiential marketing allows brands to create a unique experience that can deliver more than one message at a time. It also gives them a way to move beyond “read only” campaigns and go a lot deeper on engagement and conversation. Also, figuring out how to embrace experiential doesn’t have to take lots of time or money—just lots of creativity. We developed a process called 6X6. It consists of a multidisciplinary team of 6 people who spend 6 weeks to determine what a brand needs to do to break through. We often find ourselves quickly building and testing a prototype to see how well a specific idea resonates, in addition to creating a budget estimate for a potential experience.
Trends: The experiences that work are the ones that use technology and experience design to deliver more than a “that was cool” experience. We work with BMW, whose cars are beautiful and luxurious, but a lot of the truly mind-blowing innovation is hidden beneath the surface, where no one can see it. We built a mobile AR app called The InSight App that lets you look through the solid exterior of the car while explaining the complex set-up of the plug-in hybrid electric drive-train technology in real time as you walk around it. We showed the experience at local driving events, where primed brand fans could go deep on the technology in the new models. It allowed us to create a great brand moment and also educate at the same time.
Wow-worthy activations: One piece of work that I still love—almost a decade later—is the VW Piano Stairs. It brought to life the fun side of the VW brand, and wasn’t really aimed at driving business or leads. They were simply creating something enjoyable, and then giving that halo to the brand. It was simple, interactive and hugely popular. It stood out because it was different and brave.
How to do better: Brands need to be brave. Because experiences can be multidimensional, the brands can be pushed into areas they may have never had to consider. How many brands think about architecture, interactive spaces and audio design at the same time? We recently did a piece for Bayer to help them launch a purpose-driven, rather than profit-driven, research fund. They knew that their audience would come with healthy skepticism about what they were trying to do, and they decided to take it head on. We helped them create an architectural piece to launch at the Summit Conference in L.A.—one that brought together many work streams into one space [e.g., film, cinema, debate, community, discussion]. No campaign could have delivered the equivalent result for what they were willing to spend.
Zak Mroueh, Chief Creative Officer & Founder, Zulu Alpha Kilo
The opportunity: Brand experiences have evolved into something bigger and more stand-alone, and a solution to real business problems. We created an experience for Harley-Davidson in 2016 to increase their market share among young urban riders when there were no Harley dealerships they could visit in downtown Toronto. Instead of a summer ad campaign, we advised creating an experience that would have a longer shelf life. So, 1903: A Harley Davidson Café was born. In addition to serving lattes, the café functioned as a showroom for new models and Harley’s focus on craftsmanship. The café generated over 27 million earned media impressions and record levels of engagement on social platforms. It also contributed to a 7 percent sales increase for Harley after two years of decline.
Why it matters: We’ve seen a cultural shift in the last several years. “Acquiring” experiences rather than possessions has become more important to people. This is why great experiential marketing is able to tap so well into earned and social media pick-up. We created a campaign outside a Puma store for its Mostro shoe that invited people to throw on a pair, dip the shoes in paint and step on a canvas to see the unique designs of the soles. We then turned the canvas into a billboard above the store. We also used the paint-splattered shoes for an in-store display that included a video showing how the billboard was made by everyday consumers. In the end, the process of creating an ad was actually an experiential play. It was something unique and newsworthy that people wanted to share.
Trends: I hope experiences agencies create just to win awards, rather than to actually solve a brand’s business problem, are on their way out. When it’s only seen by a handful of people and an awards jury, it doesn’t reflect well on our industry. I hope the same for experiences that work as nothing more than a sampling program. As for what’s here to stay, I think creating experiences at POS is a growing trend. We created a recent campaign for SingleCut Beersmiths Big In Japan beer in which we gamified beer labels. Rock music is ingrained in the brand’s history and DNA, so we turned the packaging into a music trivia game of “name that tune” with QR codes, which are hugely popular in Japan. Using technology in experiential events will continue to be a growing trend in the future.
Wow-worthy activations: Years ago, for the FIFA World Cup, Adidas turned a pod from the amusement park freefall ride Sky Screamer into a soccer ball and invited people to “Be the Ball” and feel what it’s like to be launched at over 170 kilometers per hour. More recently, I loved what HBO did at SXSW for the hit series "Westworld." They turned two acres of land into a real-life version of "Westworld"’s town, Sweetwater. It was incredibly immersive, with detailed sets, actors and clues about the upcoming season. Those are both one-of-a-kind experiences. Even if you weren’t there, as a consumer, you can imagine what it must have been like to experience it.
How to do better: Not all experiences are created equal. You need to ensure it serves a purpose, and look for something that has longevity beyond the experience itself. It has to have talk-value and be newsworthy. You want it to be an experience they will remember for a long time. That is what will make people want to share it, and give an experience real legs.
Mike Woods, Director of Immersive Content/ECD, M ss ng P eces
The opportunity: The ubiquitousness of e-commerce, traditional screens and online social platforms are pushing brands to drive attention in different directions. Curatable, aspirational experiences are a great gateway to a brand’s identity. The potential of experiential is absolutely limitless. Capturing a truly unique, honest brand moment on film, or via press or story or case study has huge potential as earned media. There is a sweet spot between amazing experiences and their inspired documentation and then dissemination. And rather than traditionally relying on a host of different companies to broadcast a brand’s message from idea to execution, the best experiential creative can sometimes exist in pure real-time, and in true conversation between brand and customer.
Why it matters: The collective thirst for innovation makes experiential marketing the ideal valve for a brand’s message or story in 2019. Brands can curate, experiment, distill and enhance any message or strategy very quickly, without huge media buys and the slow pace of traditional channels. Giving customers and new audiences a real experience has obvious lasting benefits, but that gets amplified by 10,000 if the film, documentation and sharing of the experience is perfectly pitched.
Trends: I almost feel like we’ve reached an impasse. Whether something is “cool” or not, be it a platform, some tech, some hardware or software doesn't really matter anymore. It feels dated to suggest certain technologies have had their 15 minutes, as all the old classics—building projections, VR installations, ARGs [alternate-reality games], AI or pop-up rides—are now continually reinvented when new technology allows. Everything is fair game if it’s done well. Consumers rarely get tired of classic experiences. Disney doesn’t phase out roller coasters just because they've been around for years.
Wow-worthy activations: We just won an Emmy for an experiential activation with our Truth campaign. We [achieved] the perfect balance between ground-breaking technology, honest messaging and captivating performances. They are our Holy Trinity in this respect. We can never lose sight of being truly objective, and thinking from a visitor’s POV. It’s very easy to spot the bad activations where the construct has gone in a far too indulgent direction. It's the easiest mistake to make. The activations that wow us put the user-slash-customer journey first. We obsess about those details. Writing the visitor’s journey is as important as getting carried away with any new technology or idea.
How to do better: Be honest about your message. Choose your technology tools carefully. Put the visitor first, always. We just worked with 22Squared on a big experiential campaign for Baskin-Robbins, around the launch of Stranger Things Season 3. We were allowed to play in their story-world, and had to make sure every aspect was fiercely authentic to the fan base. Think about your entire ecosystem at every step. Think about how the message and experience is being viewed across every available media.
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