Following on from writing a few thoughts on Brands & Social Media, for our second feature essay, in the aftermath of huge events like Imbibe Live and brand lead activations at various Summer festivals, we have decided to look into the murky and often all encompassing world of experiential marketing.
Firstly, it may be useful to clarify a few things; specifically what we regard as being experiential marketing given the term is consistently misappropriated to encompass most other forms of marketing. Sending text messages to phones, monthly e-mails and newsletters is not experiential marketing. A TV or print advert, no matter how sensory, is not experiential marketing either. Furthermore no website is truly experiential. That’s not to say that relationship marketing, advertising and other forms of communicating with consumers aren’t valuable in the marketing mix, they are critical. However for us, and the sake of the following commentary, experiential marketing is about interacting in person and bringing a brand alive in a (physically) “live” environment.
Like its most talked about outcome – pop up’s – experiential marketing has been around for many years, all-be-it under different names and with a different emphasis with regards to its purpose and role within the wider marketing machine. Nowadays, experiential marketing has evolved to include face-to-face, virtual, social and other digital marketing tactics as part of a 360 degree relationship between brands and their audiences in live environments.
In 1971 Alvin Toffler, an American writer and futurologist, talked about the upcoming “experiential industry” in his book ‘Future Shock’ which Joseph Pine and James Gilmore then extended upon in their book ‘The Experience Economy’. Each stated the “Experience Economy” would be the next economy following the Agrarian, Industrial and the most recent, Service Economy. Pine and Gilmore argue that businesses must orchestrate memorable events for their customers and that memory itself becomes the product – i.e. the experience. With this in mind it is easy to see how in an age of commoditization and where many products as well as services are undifferentiated, consumers shift their focus from product and service attributes, to the experience obtained while using the product or service. This is true when it comes to gin brands, as the differentiating factors for purchasing decisions between gin offerings are more often than not, merely shades of grey.
Experiential marketing is a relatively young marketing discipline, but is growing rapidly because it ticks a lot of the right boxes. Compared to mass media campaigns, experiential events tend to communicate on a much more personal level, generating a deeper level of emotional engagement, resulting in better conversion rates, and all at a relatively low cost. The fragmentation and saturation of conventional media channels has led to the reduced effectiveness of traditional promotional methods. For example, consumers are becoming immune to advertising by fast forwarding through TV adverts using their Sky box recorders, blocking or ignoring internet banner advertising, and failing to hear the constant bombardment of marketing messages they encounter throughout their daily lives. Experiential marketing by its very nature is a dialogue that consumers cannot ignore, not because they’re being forced into it, but because it engages with them on a personal level.
Talking to Marketing Magazine, Riana Gallagher, former brand manager for Hendrick’s Gin, echoes this “By running events such as the Hendrick’s Refined Courtship Clinic, we are able to meet audiences first-hand, furnish them with a sample of our gin and, we hope, make an impression that they will remember and talk to their friends about. The relationship formed is far greater than any other form of marketing, as consumers are being addressed in a personal way, rather than through a media channel.”
The Benefits & Pit-falls…
Hendrick’s Gin, possibly the gin category’s leader when it comes to experiential marketing, is a good example of a brand that has a considered and systematic approach to experiential activity. Turning up here and there, sponsoring one type of event or another would have gained some awareness, but would not have been as effective as their current strategy. By focusing on the type of person, the type of event and then the type of interaction, there is a consistency to all their activity. It is now possible (after two or three years of consistent approach) to say “that event is a Hendrick’s event” with out even seeing a logo, a feat that really promotes the brand to a much wider audience other than just gin drinkers. The same can’t be said for a few others, where brand identity seems to have been forgotten when the decision came to what type of platform to engage in, let alone what type of interaction would be going on there after.
In his book ‘Re-Imagine!’, Tom Peters makes a similar point stating that despite the fact that experiences will be the essence of life in the New Economy, “… most companies trying to pull this ‘experience thing’ off will fail miserably. They won’t get it … This ‘experience thing’ is … extremist.”
Overall direction aside – most cases of bad experiential marketing are simply because of the details or event team. On the occasions that a good concept actually does go through to a live event, it can still fall flat in an instant. It is all too easy to lose a consumer with staff that assume everyone is the same and either patronise or confuse the consumer with too much information or irrelevant talk. To be fair, we’re not blaming agencies, there are potentially many guilty parties. Not wanting to name and shame but, at Imbibe Live we overheard one gin brand owner tell Joanne Moore (Master Distiller at Greenall’s, who also distill Bombay Sapphire) that grains of paradise were a unique botanical to his new brand. Pity for him that Bombay Sapphire has had it marked on their actual bottle since the early 90’s…
Worst still is when the event teams are not out to provide experiences but are solely there to lead onto an instant sale. We could go on but these examples are merely some of the details that can go wrong from a brand’s perspective and are relatively easy to fix (which makes it even more bemusing that many still get it wrong). Add into the mix the consumer angles, and even more difficulties are presented. Everyone will have different thresholds for what they enjoy and dislike, what they want to know, how long they have to spend, what details they notice and why they are even there in the first place. All of which amounts to one fact: that perfect experiential for 100% of people is impossible.
However it is easy to get right for a vast majority of people. Many of the most successful pop-up launches and events of recent years have not been the work of commercial brands, but independent chefs and creatives. The main reason for this is because they have offered experiences and opportunities that people have really wanted to engage with. If brands fail to offer consumers a compelling reason to interact with them, their experiential strategy risks being dangerously unsubstantial. Good depth of content and adaptability is the key.
Give people a reason to want to talk to you, appeal to all the senses, make a connection quickly, don’t sell false information and try to remember that with experiential marketing, the memory they take away is the aim of the interaction, not just tasting the drink.
Trade events like Imbibe Live are not good examples of where world-class experiential activity is going to take place, as it’s much closer to the quick fire, serve and dispatch genre of marketing. We must point out that the purpose of Imbibe Live is not really about experiential activations nor does it really sell itself as that. However a lot of the principals of good experiential marketing can be seen there, all-be-it in its most raw, mass produced form. For example, Gin Mare seemed to get it right, where despite repeating the same patter time and again, if one stood aside and simply watched you could see it was done with the same enthusiasm each time. Equally good was SW4 and Sipsmith who made sure that those who did the talking knew what to say and had the brand team onsite should it needed to be taken up a level. On the other hand, 6 o’Clock Gin seemed exasperated with the crowd and were on minimal effort until someone they deemed valuable (buyers) came along. It’s not hard to get interaction right at events, by en large it just involves explaining brand values, some common sense and a friendly disposition.
The House of Bols, in Amsterdam, and the Bombay Sapphire Blue Room, in London’s Vinopolis, are in contrast to Imbibe Live. Designed not only to be running for longer, it also caters for a much longer interaction. They are both brand experiences that have had to consider how to tell the brand story while also not being too static. Furthermore, both brands have openly stated that these are their flagship experiences – the ultimate way to discover their story. Obviously, this opens it up to much more scrutiny and a gamble in itself, as those going to find out more will do so with huge expectations. The experiential challenge shifts from converting a passer-by to satisfying someone who is already more than a little curious.
Whether it was conscious on their part or not, The House of Bols heavily targets smell as a way of showing people what its products are about. This is particularly clever as not only is smell one of the most powerful tools to solicit a memory, it is also one of the best for creating them. If generating a good memory of a fun interactive and playful experience is the aim, the House of Bols delivers. It also demonstrates with equal panache the sheer impossibility of replicating this on a smaller, cheaper scale. The recently launched Bols airport experience is to be applauded and is by all accounts a very good brand experience, but the time restrictions on passers by, the compromise forced by a smaller site with greater constraints are all visible. Suffice to say that when it comes to longer lasting brand experiences, success is much more akin to what makes a shop or bar work, rather than a trade stand.
The Digital Elements…
Experiential activation has evolved from the early days where it was okay to simply focus on the “live”. Brands and their teams or agencies now also need to focus on building new digital layers to ensure that the effect of any given event stretches beyond just one single event. Although only in a basic way, this too could be seen at Imbibe Live where name cards were being judiciously scanned by brands for future relationship marketing opportunities.
Moving away from the large trade shows; driving consumer investment beyond the life span of the pop-up experiential and the PR generated at that time is critical to the success of modern experiential work and dramatically increases the value of the activity. Extending goings-on in the pop-up store online and into social-media activity would work well and to date, no gin brand has really done this effectively.
Experiential marketers are faced with the challenge of creating experiences that activate the emotional and rational levers of our audiences from a face-to-face perspective whilst also accounting for the distractions of laptops and mobile devices. Social media competes heavily with the experiences event teams have taken so long to engineer. However, by integrating digital media into the experience and by taking a targeted approach to engaging audiences across their communications channels, brands would be able to take what many see as an impediment to success and turn it into an opportunity.
Valiant efforts must be awarded to Greenall’s and Hendrick’s Gin for pushing some live information onto social media, but so far, there is still limited understanding about real two way engagement and any visible brand use whatsoever of Facebook’s check-in, or FourSquare for that same matter. For a brand to successfully push experiential activity online, there needs to be a way for users to engage with it, not just receive it as passive information simply reported from an event. Only time will tell to find out which gin brands will step up to challenge interactive campaign leaders like Orange, Skittles with equally original and witty conversation-centered campaigns.
Once again it would seem that the difficulties of doing this, returns to the limited willingness to integrate from certain agencies who all think that working in siloed environments offers the best form of protection if the time comes to accepting responsibility for getting a few elements wrong. Sharing budgets and success is hard, trusting others to do so fairly is even harder. However, if experiential marketing is the chosen approach for a campaign, integration is key and all the specialists need to be involved in adding to the live event in all their different capacities. Needless to say, so do the different marketing heads responsible internally for the brands, all with their respective purses in tow. The old-school familiar rebuttals that senior-level marketers don’t need to be experts in every discipline (as the experts sit below them) may be fair, but when it comes to experiential marketing there needs to be an acceptance from brand directors that all will need to get involved even if they themselves don’t quite understand at first how these “specialists” will help or where they add value.
Experiential marketing is potentially a powerful marketing tool that should be considered as part of any integrated marketing stratergy. Do it well and you’ll create brand advocates who will further spread your brand messages through word of mouth and will become loyal customers for life. Do it badly, and that memory will stick with the consumer for a long time and the ‘G’ added to their ‘T’ will almost always be someone else’s.