What Is Experiential Marketing and Why Bother?

In 1999, B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore published their book, “The Experience Economy” (which also included the wonderful subtitle, “Work Is Theater & Every Business a Stage”). The book introduced a concept that marketers are all too familiar with today: that a brand’s goods and services – no matter how impressive – are no longer enough to forge consumer loyalty. They (we) need brand engagement to create a lasting connection.

Millennials often receive much of the praise and blame for the shift away from traditional advertising and marketing. Yet, “The Experience Economy” was published eight years before the introduction of the iPhone. It came out well before millennials became stereotyped as experience-obsessed, self-absorbed, technophiles – when the oldest millennials were still in high school. Millennials did not create the experience economy, and it was not created because of millennials. They were just the first generation to mature with it (and benefit from it).

Because the experience economy has evolved to become the primary marketing strategy, brands can no longer simply create an advertising campaign, and a social media campaign, and a print campaign, and cross their fingers that the message is being absorbed. That sort of siloed thinking is not enough. Those campaigns are essential parts of a marketing strategy, but they only work as part of one, large conversation that includes engaging events.

The ultimate goal is to turn a consumer into a brand advocate through their experience with your product or service.

So, What Is Experiential Marketing?

Experiential marketing is all about engaging a consumer. Whereas traditional advertising focuses on communicating the benefits of using a product or service, experiential marketing actively engages a consumer with that product or service.

Sometimes, this is quite literal – by having people interact in product demonstrations. Sometimes, however, it is more figurative – where an activation evokes the feeling or idea of a brand.

For example, Lean Cuisine recently set up in New York's Grand Central Station and invited passersby to “weigh in.” However, there were no actual scales available. Instead, women were handed scale-shaped whiteboards and were asked to write their accomplishments (such as getting a nursing degree at 40 or raising two children as a single mom) – the ways in which they truly wish to be weighed – and hang them around the display. As the campaign said, “If you’re going to weigh yourself, weigh something that matters.”

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Photo Credit: Event Marketer

The activation was part of a shift in Lean Cuisine’s strategy away from being a “weight loss” brand and toward being a “healthy lifestyle” brand. Part of the goal was to get people to think differently about Lean Cuisine by thinking differently (or, at least, positively) about themselves.

In the end, the #WeighThis campaign was so successful that it helped reverse a six-year decline in Lean Cuisine sales and brand perception improved by 33 percent. In addition, the campaign received more than 204 million social media impressions.

That’s how, by engaging consumers, experiential marketing can help brands make a memorable, personal, and emotional connection. The way brands do this is by putting the needs of the consumer first.

Lean Cuisine wanted to get consumers to think about its products in a different way. To accomplish this, they created a marketing campaign that didn’t even feature Lean Cuisine products. Sure, the brand was all over the #WeighThis (on the whiteboards, on the display, etc.), but actual Lean Cuisine meals were nowhere to be seen.

The brand put the consumers first and addressed their needs. In doing so, it endeared itself to people who took part in the activation and those who learned about it through social media and achieved a shift in the way Lean Cuisine is perceived.

Launching an Experiential Marketing Campaign

When creating a new experiential campaign, you must know who your consumers are and what they want. To gain this knowledge, you will need to comb through all the latest data available to get the most up-to-date picture of your customers.

Fortunately, adopting a customer-first approach helps simplify your process for devising an event strategy. First, you need to identify a single need to address (don’t go too broad – you can’t solve all their problems), then you need to establish some clear goals. What do you hope to accomplish with this event? How do you want people to feel? What do you want them to remember when they walk away? How many social media mentions do you hope to hit? Do you want to see sales rise by a certain amount and time? Know your goals, the specific outcomes you hope to achieve, and how you intend to measure the results.

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Photo Credit: The Flash Pack

Now find the activation that sets your brand apart. What are you trying to solve for your consumers and how does your brand uniquely fit into that? Remember, the activation doesn’t have to be a literal one-to-one fit. Attempting to evoke a feeling can be very powerful.

However, you can’t force it. What you create has to be authentic. Audiences can tell when an experimental activation wasn’t researched enough or was hastily thrown together. Any campaign that reeks of inauthenticity will fail.

Be sure to include several areas that encourage people to share on their social media channels: photo ops, colorful backdrops, fun activities, etc. By maximizing the social media chatter around your event, you will amplify and perpetuate your brand’s conversation further reinforcing your message.

By providing an engaging experience and something of value for your audience, you will earn their loyalty and start to create ambassadors who will advocate for your brand.

Experiential Marketing Examples

Let’s Play Musical Stairs

In 2009, commuters in Stockholm, Sweden were surprised to find that the steps leading to one particular subway stop had been converted into piano keys. As travelers descended and ascended, each stair produced a musical note.

The activation was created by Volkswagen to promote environmentally-friendly changes the brand made to their automobiles. The idea was, as cars become healthier, the people driving them can become healthier, too. So, Volkswagen wanted to encourage people to take the stairs instead of the escalator. The brand accomplished this by making taking the stairs fun – in fact, people chose the stairs over the escalator by a margin of two to one.

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Photo Credit: Wall Street Journal

Swipe for Change

This one is an excellent example of utilizing multiple channels for experiential marketing. German relief organization Misereor created a campaign called SocialSwipe. The brand set up a series of digital billboards in airports. The billboards displayed images that represented issues Misereor works to resolve. For example, hunger was denoted by a loaf of bread, and human trafficking was symbolized by hands tied together.

In the middle of the billboards was a credit card swipe. For two euros, people could swipe their card, and the billboard would animate. The card would appear to cut off a slice of bread or sever the bonds holding the hands together.

It was a very effective visual, but it didn’t end there. After someone made the donation, the charge would show up on their statement as a thank you from Misereor. The message also included an option to turn the one-time, two-euro payment into a recurring payment that would appear on the statement every month, which is an excellent example of how to subtly nurture leads.

Experiential marketing doesn’t have to be hard and it doesn’t have to be complicated, but it needs to be carefully thought out and authentic – and that’s why we’re here. For more ideas and tips, give Event Architecture a call at 972-323-9433.

sofia krsmanovic