The Last Campaign: How Experiences Are Becoming the New Advertising

Red Bull, Virgin America, Uniqlo and Guinness Lead the Way

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Garrick Schmitt
Garrick Schmitt
Is advertising dying? It's certainly fashionable to say so. Conventional wisdom holds that traditional media's grip on consumers continues to slip as they increasingly turn to the internet and their peers for entertainment and purchasing recommendations.

In fact, any planner worth his or her salt can reel off a stream of statistics pointing to advertising's demise -- or lack of effectiveness, at least: Prime-time continues to erode as all the major networks saw significant declines for last year's season; 77% of U.S. consumers trust businesses less than they did a year ago; consumers trust their peers' opinions online more than any other source and a whopping 83% of Mad Men's supposedly ad-friendly time-shifted audience fast forwards through commercials according to Tivo. The list goes on and on.

But perhaps it's not that advertising is failing but that brand experiences (both on and offline) are really what are capturing the imagination of today's consumer. In FEED, a new report that I authored with my colleagues at Razorfish, we found that digital brand experiences are having an inordinate sway on consumer purchasing habits and brand affinity.

For example, 65% of U.S. consumers report a digital experience changing their perception about a brand (either positively or negatively) and 97% of that group report that the same experience ultimately influenced whether or not they went on to purchase a product from that brand. In a nutshell, experience matters. A lot.

Of course, brands that were "born digital" intuitively know this. Google and Amazon are pioneering experiential brands. That's why Amazon continues to pour money into improving its customer service rather than run traditional advertising or marketing campaigns. As Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has said, "We are not great advertisers. So we start with customers, figure out what they want, and figure out how to get it to them." Zappos (which recently hired Mullen) built its brand the same way, as has Facebook.

But what about more traditionally-minded marketers who weren't born digital? Can they succeed in an experience-driven world? The answer is "yes" and here are some of the best:

Red Bull: Red Bull basically pioneered the experiential category. Not only did the brand rise to prominence by sponsoring alternative athletes and lifestyles, it went further by creating its own events, like Red Bull's Flugtag and even its own sports like Red Bull's Crashed Ice, which takes over old Quebec with a mix of hockey and motorcross. Even the brand's website has morphed into a blog, much like today's most popular publishers.

Camper: Most of us in the U.S. think of Camper as purely a comfortable yet stylish shoe brand. But the Spanish company is much more and pursues a brand ethos that's both traditional, cultural and fashion forward simultaneously. Proof: Casa Camper, stylish (but laid back) hotels in Barcelona and Berlin that embodies the brand's essence. Ditto for Camper Together which taps up and coming artists to create one-of-a-kind boutiques.

Guinness: Guinness may be 250 years old, but it's acting like a much, much younger marketer. The company has embraced experiential branding both literally and figuratively with its "It's Alive Inside" positioning. For its anniversary, Guinness offered up Remarkable Experiences, including a trip into space. It also released a pub-finder iPhone application with a social media twist. More impressively, the brand created the Guinness Storehouse, a seven-story building that functions as both museum and pub, that has now become one of Ireland's top tourist attractions. And, more recently, Guinness even wired up its rugby team with RFID tags (including balls and players) to capture a whole range of statistics about how fast, powerfully and effectively the game is played.

UNIQLO: Few companies have so used digital like Uniqlo to both build a brand and breakthrough to new consumers -- and on a truly global scale.The Japanese retailer surprises and delights consumers at every turn, whether through innovative iPhone applications, calendars, e-commerce, stylebooks and microsites. Uniqlo's experiential efforts not only express the brand, but reach new consumers who may live thousands of miles away from the nearest retail location.

Virgin America: Virgin America has gone further than most, ensuring that the experience is the marketing -- and advertising in many cases. The brand targeted tech-savvy consumers early on with its Red system entertainment console and in-flight WiFi. It showed off its dramatic interiors in promotions with Diggnation and YouTube celebrities; became an early adopter of Twitter for customer service; and reinforced its brand values through its simple booking engine on And now, for the holidays, Virgin America is partnering with Google to offer free WiFi for travelers.

Nike: Nike, of course, has been moving in this experiential direction for a few years. 'We're not in the business of keeping the media companies alive,'' Nike's Trevor Edwards told the New York Times in 2007. ''We're in the business of connecting with consumers.'' And so they have. The company continually earns kudos for consumer experience breakthroughs like Nike+, its online running community; the Human Race, a global running event; and more recently the Livestrong Chalkbot which enabled users to submit a text message that would be painted (digitally) on the route of the Tour de France.

Experiences, it would seem, are the new advertising. Experiences reach and engage customers in new and more meaningful ways, they promote "trial" over simply messaging and -- quite frankly -- experiences are much more suited to our digital era when everything is just a click away. Our challenge now, as marketers, is to make sure that our products and brands can actually live up to the experiences that we advertise.

Garrick Schmitt is group VP of experience planning at Razorfish and the agency's global lead for user experience. He publishes FEED, Razorfish's annual digital brand experience report and in his spare time flails about on Twitter @gschmitt.
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