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Ronald McDonald attends the Academy Awards. Taco Bell "buys" the Liberty Bell before giving away a store. Nabisco sets up an 800-number to let consumers vote on a new spring pastel to fill its Oreos. And squads of samplers swarm the U.S., vowing to put a Snapple into the hands of "every man, woman and child."

Welcome to the world of experiential marketing. An in-your-face hybrid of established disciplines such as integrated and relationship marketing and public relations, this new animal strives to create a brand experience with consumers on a personal level.

To do so, marketers are mixing up a cocktail of paid advertising, PR, sampling, direct marketing and more. The aim: To bring consumers not just to an awareness of a brand, but to an actual--or virtual--experience of it.


"We can take an idea from national TV right down into the streets," said Jim Heekin, president, McCann-Erickson North America, New York, which recently moved deeper into the discipline with the purchase of N.W. Ayer & Partners' Ad:Vent.

"There is an accelerating trend, worldwide, toward the use of non-traditional marketing communications that link clients with their customers and allow real interaction," said Tony Pace, managing director of Momentum IMC, McCann's event marketing unit, which was merged with Ad:Vent. In McCann parlance, that linkage is called "experiential branding."

"What you're seeing is more than event marketing," Mr. Heekin said. "It's reaching out to the consumer in new, innovative ways--to surround them, if you will." The notion, he added, is to allow consumers to "test drive" a product, whether it be a car or a soft drink.


Similar logic led Ammirati Puris Lintas, New York, to form an "idea engineering" unit in June, and give new hire David Schaller the Disney-like title of exec VP-managing director, imagineering. The unit will coordinate brand initiatives ranging from special events, theatrical productions, interactive communications, custom publishing, retail design, visual merchandising, sports marketing and branded exhibits.

"It's really integrated communications, finding ways for the consumer to experience your brand in fresh ways outside traditional media," said Duncan Pollock, chairman-CEO at the agency


The difference between this movement and the acquisition-driven 1980s, when agencies snatched up PR shops, direct marketing operations and the like, he maintains, is that the motivation is different today.

"Fifteen years ago, it was about [Ogilvy & Mather's] Orchestration. [Young & Rubicam's] the Whole Egg. Agencies bought up Wunderman, Burson because they saw more dollars going to below-the-line [activities], and because it's a way to get around conflicts," said Mr. Pollock. "It was for the agency, not clients."

Today, however, clients are demanding more.

"The difference is between talking to the consumer and shouting," said Kevin Lowery, director of public information, Campbell Soup Co. And PR--in the broadest sense of the term--is playing a much larger role.

Mr. Lowery said the company's PR-only program themed around the 40th anniversary of Swanson frozen dinners in April 1994 produced a 44% sales surge and a 2-share point increase without a dime of paid advertising. The program involved press releases and a video news release.

"PR has come of age," said Al Golin, chairman of PR agency Golin/Harris, Chicago. "It used to be a stepchild, but now it can drive the advertising."

Mr. Golin knows whereof he speaks--his agency executed McDonald's Corp.'s massive PR push for the Arch Deluxe, landing spokes-clown Ronald McDonald on the Academy Awards, the "Today" show, at the Kentucky Derby and courtside with Dennis Rodman at a Chicago Bulls basketball game.

In the case of Arch Deluxe, the PR did drive the advertising. Both were the brainchild of Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, an agency which prides itself enough on its cross-disciplines that it named Mark Goldstein to the unusual title of president-integrated marketing three years ago.


"What led the way [for Arch Deluxe] was the positioning--the burger with the grown-up taste," Mr. Goldstein said. "But what people remember most is the PR strategy. The teaser spots [showing Ronald golfing and disco dancing] grew from the PR strategy, not the advertising."

One of the biggest PR coups of recent years was pulled off by one of the silver screen's biggest stars: Liz Taylor. In a cross-promotion for her Elizabeth Arden Black Pearls fragrance. Ms. Taylor made cameo appearances on several CBS sitcoms that had references to a necklace of black pearls lost by Ms. Taylor.

The unusual nature of the stunt, combined with the uncommon power of the star, generated a barrage of publicity far greater than Arden parent Unilever could have purchased through paid ads.

PR goes hand-in-hand with advertising at Nabisco Biscuit Co., said Ann Smith, senior manager-product publicity, who notes that PR managers are in early on product development.

"There's a grassroots movement to touch the consumer, to say 'here we are,' and you have to do that in a big way," she said.


For Nabisco, that can mean the 800-number for Oreos or, more recently, a nationwide talent search to find consumers to star in a new cracker commercial. The contest, which invites consumers to audition by describing their favorite way to top a Nabisco cracker, dovetails with the company's ad campaign from McCann showing creative recipes using its crackers.

By mid-July, just two weeks into the promotion, Nabisco had attracted 25,000 calls requesting auditions in seven cities, Ms. Smith said. Those auditions came from small ads in Variety as well as a press release picked up in publications such as USA Today.

Quaker Oats Co., meanwhile, aims to literally touch the consumer with its incredibly ambitious $40 million, three-month sampling program for Snapple.

A squad of Snapple samplers is now snaking its way around the country to parks, beaches, office buildings and Little League games. Also, an 800-number for a free sample is being blitzed in a network TV and radio campaign supported by outdoor boards, point-of-purchase, Internet postings and other venues.

"Obviously, this is more than a traditional sampling effort," said Russ Klein, senior VP at Snapple agency Foote, Cone & Belding, Chicago. "We're creating a happening for Snapple."

Snapple, he says, plans to give away 10 million bottles in 60 days. "It's the difference between getting a greeting card and having someone visit you."


One of the most assiduous PR practitioners is PepsiCo's Taco Bell, launching no less than three huge publicity blitzes so far this year.

The fast-feeder began blanketing the press with news of its 1996 $200 million ad campaign from Bozell, Costa Mesa, Calif., in late 1995--including videotapes, T-shirts, interviews with top company executives and even a video news release of its "Nothing ordinary about it" jingle being recorded.

The company followed that up with a controversial April Fool's Day announcement that it had bought the Liberty Bell and, later in the year, a highly unusual ad and promotional campaign giving away a $1 million Taco Bell franchise.

Results, however, have been uneven at best. According to SPINdex, a proprietary service that measures media coverage of marketing events for Advertising Age, editorial coverage of Taco Bell's ad campaign came up with a rather ordinary score of 31, nowhere near the 467 scored by the later Liberty Bell ploy. The give-away-the-store promotion, meanwhile, received only a 55.

Taco Bell's highest SPINdex score--563--came from coverage of an event Taco Bell would just as soon forget. Proving the adage that bad news gets the most pickup, the restaurant got the most press this year for its ill-fated--and short-lived--sponsorship of the now defunct "Dana Carvey Show."

The publicity, including the good, didn't do much to lift sales at Taco Bell. For the six months ended in June, Taco Bell's sales were up 1%.

Copyright August 1996 Crain Communications Inc.

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