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Experiential marketing is exploding. More and more brands are turning to experiential to connect with their audiences. A far cry from the days of guys in promotional T-shirts handing out samples, experiential is reaching new depths of engagement all the time, as Lucy Clark guest content contributor to YESmarketing discovers

Brands and consumers are taking their relationship to the next level. They are, very slowly, becoming friends.

The matchmaker at the heart of this blossoming relationship? Experiential.

Experiential marketing is exploding onto the scene in a big way. And at the core of a successful experiential campaign today is the ability to build and develop a lasting relationship with the consumer.

As Alex Ritchie, co-founder and creative director at e2 explains: “Brands and retailers have either got to engage consumers with the experience or just compete on price – that’s the only two options they have now. It’s about understanding the consumer, understanding what they want to hear. It’s about giving the consumer a unique experience around the brand.”

Recent hugely successful campaigns such as Share a Coke, 4X Island, Steal Banksy and Virgin Mobile’s Fair Go Bro have had experiential at their heart. Engaging consumers in the campaign by inviting them to have their name printed on a Coke can, encouraging them to steal a piece of artwork or giving them the chance to meet the brother of one of the world’s most famous men, is nourishing the new-found friendships.

One Green Bean worked on the PR for Share a Coke. Kat Thomas, the agency’s managing director, says: “There were activations in Westfield where people could get their name printed on a can of Coke. People queued for hours for this. It was so simple, yet it was so heavily engaging and so popular.”

The Share a Coke campaign

And there is plenty of room for these new-found friendships to grow, according to Carrie Barker, partner at four-year-old brand experience agency The Projects.

She says: “When we founded, and still today, there is a real gap – it is such a growth area. There is a real need and desire for clients to bring their brands to life and build engagement with consumers in a direct and personal way. Above the line advertising, in many cases, is unwanted messages. With experiential, the brand is enticing the consumer into their world. The consumer has a choice whether they engage with the brand.”

But the blooming brand/consumer relationship must, some argue, come at the expense of others – and the victim here is the traditional advertising agency.

Peter Rix, chief executive of George P Johnson, explains: “The traditional advertising agency is dying – social media is cleaning them up. Suddenly, without us ever really defining it for anyone, we are the guys who can deliver to clients at a lot less cost than to run a TV campaign targeting a consumer who has already decided what he wants to buy.

“Experiential is the subtlety of getting the message across without sticking a probe in front of them saying ‘please buy this’.”

Get involved

Experiential is all about taking part. It’s about giving the consumer something to physically touch and test, or giving them a way to truly experience a brand. It’s about playing up to the fundamentals of human behaviour.

“Experiential is core consumer behaviour, says Grant Higgins, senior creative director at George P Johnson. “People want to be with other people, share and talk face-to-face. And digital has only served to grow the events and experiential industry.”

"Digital has only served to grow the events and experiential industry." - Grant Higgins, George P Johnson

Barker argues that the notion of getting consumers involved pays off: “One of the reasons experiential is doing so well is not only is it a vehicle to drive consumer engagement and for the opportunity for a client to get a potential consumer to taste, feel, experience and try a product, but it does really influence the decision to purchase.”

And Thomas agrees that consumer involvement is where the money lies. “We are very focused on creating campaigns that have consumer participation at the heart of them,” she outlines. “I believe that’s where you get the biggest bang for your buck. If people participate in something, they will talk about it and share it on social media.

“Rather than just making a TVC that is beautifully shot and stunning to watch, the world has changed. You need to create something that has an incentive for consumers to participate.”

Adding value

But it’s not just about getting the consumer interested and involved. To win over today’s savvy consumer who is flooded with messages every single day, the secret is in adding value.

As Shani Langi, managing director at Play Communication, outlines: “It’s all about a value proposition. It used to be just sampling – promotional staff in T-shirts. It’s not that any more. It’s about how can we add value and how can we make that person’s life a little bit easier and a little bit better. That is the constant challenge for us.”

Being able to offer the consumer something, rather than telling them something, is a way to stand out in the ever-growing crowd of advertising messages that swamps the marketplace.

“Consumers are absolutely flooded with messages – that’s not new,” adds Langi. “But they are also spoilt for choice now. Brands throw things at consumers left, right and centre – free tickets, free samples. It’s important when devising a campaign that you think about something that’s going to add value.

“Consumers expect more for free these days. They are spoilt for choice. We have set a high bar to continuously meet and live up to. We give consumers so much. Consumers think ‘if you are talking to me about something, you need to be making my life better’.”

Langi singled out Commonwealth Bank’s Property Guide app as an example. The app enables the user to point their phone at any property and it tells you its value, sales history and profile, as well as recent sales history in any area of Australia.

“CommBank is not saying ‘we can give you a home loan’,” says Langi. “They are adding value to the consumer’s experience before they are even thinking about buying a particular house. That way, CommBank is in the consumer’s mind when they come to applying for loans.”

Commonwealth Bank's Property App

She also used NAB’s ‘Honesty Experiments’ campaign to highlight how experiential is turning advertising upside-down by putting the consumer at the centre.

“Rather than telling people ‘we reward honesty’, they went out there and filmed it,” Langi recalls. “It’s the experiential coming first, rather than the advertising. It’s really turning advertising on its head.”

It’s also about being honest and going with the flow, rather than trying to manufacture an answer or a response. The only thing that will happen then is that the brand will be caught out, as Simon Micarone, director or Rinsed explains: “People are much wiser and the market is much more sophisticated than it used to be. If we try to be the architects of a response, it’s fraught with danger. We also have to believe in what we are doing, and we have to be honest.

“Consumers are much more likely to give you a scathing comment than a positive one. But if they are invested in something and really like it, those positive comments can be rampant.”

NAB's Honesty Experiments

Social currency

The way in which advertising is talked about and shared has changed dramatically in recent years. Today, rather than vying for a spot on the local news or in the newspaper, advertisers are vying for attention in social media spheres.

One Green Bean’s Thomas explains: “Traditionally, we were creating content for media to engage with. We wanted them to write about it and include it on their TV shows. Now it’s also about ensuring there is social currency as well as editorial currency. It still needs that newsworthiness, but equally important is that the content has social currency so people will engage with it and pass it on. If it doesn’t have that news or social currency, it becomes a very expensive sampling exercise.”

To generate social currency, social media plays a crucial role in experiential marketing. Central to pretty much every campaign is a social media strategy.

“Peer to peer influence has never been greater,” adds Thomas. “We know now what our friends like and what they’re buying, what they’re eating, what they’re watching. Word of mouth has always had a value, but it’s never been more valuable than it is now.”

Ooh!Factor’s general manager Matt Boyd agrees: “We are moving more and more towards the digital side of things, using social media and working out how to integrate it into a campaign.

“It’s all about the stunt – what can we do that will have both talkability and longevity in the media. If people talk about it and share it, you’ll get the biggest bang for your buck.”

Generating that social currency guarantees value for money when it comes to an experiential campaign.

“Even though only 2,000 people might get to take part in an experience, another two million might watch it online,” says Play Communication’s Langi. “Everything we do now naturally has some kind of digital element to it. Digital is absolutely essential for experiential marketing moving forward. In the last three years, we have not done an experiential campaign without digital.”

Micarone adds: “It’s not just about creating a Facebook account or sending out tweets. It’s about empowering people. There will always be a place for interaction with the consumer, brands always want to have a conversation with the consumer, but the challenge is how to extend that reach. That’s where social comes into it.

“If people become invested in it, they are more likely to not only give positive word of mouth, but also follow it. That’s where experiential is heading, it’s going to get deeper and wider.”

Being brave

Convincing clients that experiential is a good idea is easier said than done. Experiential is inherently expensive, hard to measure and tough to stand up against the vast exposure that a television spot guarantees.

Boyd states: “It’s been a tough six months. Experiential is expensive. The bang for buck needs to be there for it to be considered by clients. But, if it’s done well, it’s highly effective.

“On a day to day basis, it’s hard to explain the value of experiential versus outdoor or a TV spot or other media campaign. For some clients, it’s a must have. But, for others, it’s the first thing that goes off their budget.”

And Langi adds: “Companies are always looking for ROI. When you have to measure up against cost per contact, media is always going to win.

“Experiential is traditionally seen as the expensive option when you look at cost per contact, but the payoff is a lot greater. The depth of engagement is a lot greater when you have a two-way conversation, rather than advertising that is very much one way.

“But I have worked with clients who do not see the value in experiential, until they experience it themselves.”

Therefore, it is only the brave clients who are willing to give experiential a go. As Thomas outlines: “The ideas are always there. It’s down to the clients who are brave enough, ambitious enough, understand the opportunity that social affords, and want to push the boundaries of their category. The clients that can recognise a good idea and run with it are the ones that will try experiential.”

Rix adds: “In the end it’s all about creating a loud impact in front of an audience. It’s not a place for the faint-hearted.”

Virgin Mobile embraced experiential with Fair Go Bro. Nicole Bardsley, head of brand and acquisition at Virgin Mobile Australia, says: “Our strategy is to start with a great idea, create intrigue and engagement around the idea, drive organic conversation in social media and PR and then amplify and extend the message with traditional media.

“TV ads are still important to extend the reach of our campaigns but in the case of Fair Go Bro, experiential marketing was key to providing consumers with a way to interact and engage with the campaign at every stage.”

Doug Pitt outside Virgin Mobile's Pitt Street Store, Sydney

Growth spurt

The recent explosion of experiential marketing campaigns has meant a growth in the sector’s development. It is relying more and more on digital, and new ways of influencing consumers are emerging all the time.

Consumer expectations are changing all the time. People want more for their money, they want to be able to engage with brands and even to build relationships with their favourite brands.

“The biggest driver for experiential now will be that consumer expectations will change, says One Green Bean’s Thomas. “Consumers no longer see brands as faceless corporations. They are building relationships with these brands. And those doing a great job on the social sphere are able to capitalise on that.

“Consumers will expect more and more to have open dialogue and relationships with the brands in their lives. Brands will have to evolve to meet the expectation. For the right brand, that extends into a friendship.”

"Consumers no longer see brands as faceless corporations - they are building relationships with these brands." - Kat Thomas, One Green Bean

Creating a personality through social media is central to brands being able to engage with today’s audience.

“People growing up now are from the internet age,” adds Thomas. “They will expect to be able to interact with brands and organisations in the same way.”

Being able to sway people’s thoughts and opinions is a new aim for experiential, as The Projects’ Barker explains: “An area of real growth is how to use experiential to influence people.”

“Influencing the influencer” is a focus for The Projects at present. That means being able to influence the people who are out there selling or promoting a brand.

Two recent activations by The Projects, for client Pernod Ricard, taught bartenders from across Sydney how to mix new cocktails using Havana Club rum or Jameson whiskey. Mixing classes took place at the Bar Show in Sydney, then Jameson staged a party for 400 bartenders to put them in front of the bar, rather than behind it.

“It was a really effective way of them spending their money – money which could have been spent on a couple of TV spots, but was more effective this way,” comments Barker.

Some even predict that experiential will grow at the expense of the traditional television and print advert – and at the expense of the traditional ad agency.

Ritchie explains: “People crave human interaction and experience, and you cannot get that from an ad. People want to be involved, they want to be immersed in it. I think TV ads, in the long term, will either have to change their approach or focus more on creating experiences.”

And Barker agrees: “I think that budgets for experiential will come from above the line advertising – we are seeing that more and more. Clients are increasing their experiential spend at the expense of above the line.

“At present, some clients are just experimenting with experiential for the first time. For some clients the category might get the last 5% of the budget. But once they have run an experiential campaign, they can understand that it really does build engagement and encourage trial, build awareness and ultimately lead to sales.”

But, for those working in the sector, the outlook is positive – not to mention exciting. “It’s a fab industry – it’s so creative and so much fun,” Barker concludes.