Brands come alive

Live experiential events are becoming a more focused and established part of the marketing mix in a world where brands want results and consumers want more than a message. By Jo-Anne Flack.

It must be dispiriting being a creative or account director working in broadcasting advertising. It seems to have become a medium that is easy to bypass. The whole idea of interrupting someone’s viewing enjoyment to present that person with a commercial message is beginning to sound archaic.

But the marketing communications industry can always be trusted to re-invent itself and emerge with a marketing tool to suit the changing mood of consumers. And so experiential marketing is the concept that is being offered to clients who are keen to spend ever-decreasing amounts of money in more productive ways.

A Growing Concern
But experiential marketing is no flash in the pan and some of the bigger players in the industry have already set up the DMA Brand Experience Group, which will soon become a Council within the DMA and is currently chaired by Wendy Hooper, managing director at Carbon experiential agency.

It is almost as if marketing has come full circle. Cameron Day, business development director at RPM, points out that in the 1800s Colchester rifles were handed out to potential buyers to try before they made a purchase.

So maybe we have always wanted to experience and engage with products and services but it is only recently that the idea has again become fashionable and, more significantly, achievable. But is experiential marketing just a more interesting, and more expensive, version of field marketing?Day says that experiential marketing rests on three strategic principles: direct contact, indirect contact (an event that may be developed and owned by a brand, for example Nike’s Run London), and a combination of the two.

But this sector still seems to be largely misunderstood, not least by clients and some other marketing services sectors. The main issue seems to be that some clients are not sure what to expect for their money and although many experiential agencies provide ROI and evaluation models, the relative newness of the medium still means that a lot goes on under the banner of experiential marketing that isn’t necessarily so.

Defining a Discipline
Hooper says the motivation to get the top agencies under the DMA umbrella was driven by the fact that experiential marketing has evolved out of services including guerrilla marketing and face-to-face selling. “Now all these concepts tend to be lumped together and we were finding it difficult to distance ourselves from those companies who just provide staff,” he says.

Hooper believes that clients are not seeing value for money with experiential marketing because evaluation models are still being developed, and are not necessarily rigorous enough to cover events that can happen anywhere from festivals to shopping centres to railway stations.

Hooper denies accusations that experiential marketing is just a glamorised form of field marketing. “What we do is provide an experience. This is not just about sampling or compliance. We are about brand advocacy and really understanding what the consumer wants and when and how is the best way to talk to them,” she says.

Managing director at experiential agency Sledge, Ian Irving, says that at the heart of this medium is changing consumer expectations. “Consumers are increasingly media savvy. They don’t like to be interrupted but want to be engaged with on their own terms,” he says.

Bonus Scheme
Irving refers to the O2 Wireless Festival, which last year ran for the second time. Loyal O2 customers had access to an area within the festival that they could only gain entry with via a text message barcode mechanic. The area provided, among other things, comfortable seating and free massages. Says Irving: “This was an area specifically designed to treat loyal O2 customers to an experience above and beyond the festival.”

Irving says he witnessed a conversation between two people where the one on the outside of the zone asked someone on the inside how they got in. “And the one on the inside said it was because he was an O2 customer. So for both of them the idea of being an O2 customer suddenly had meaning.”

But although the O2 Festival has proved very successful for the mobile phone operator, whose main problem like all other operators is customer retention, there are some who would call this top-class corporate hospitality.

This may be part of the problem with experiential marketing – a lot of it is taking existing and well used marketing tools and cranking them up a few gears.

James Timberlake is head of direct marketing at Billington-Cartmell, and last September • helped organise a programme for motor manufacturer Mazda called Operation Renesis in which prospective car buyers were invited to experience the world of special operations’ driver training at a series of events around the country.

A team of ex-special service drivers hosted the events where trainees were given an insight into the world of security driving. The events were staged to look and feel like a live training mission using real explosions and guns.

Says Timberlake: “If you look at the current media landscape, products are all very similar and consumer choice is actually far less. It is the same with cars – they are almost all the same now.”

So Timberlake admits that what Mazda was offering was a drive day – something that is offered by all motor manufacturers – but a drive day with a difference. “We put the sizzle back into the experience. We wanted drivers to engage with the ‘Zoom Zoom’ brand element and we wanted to identify a property that people could engage with.

“With the old model of automotive marketing, you would get people into the dealers and offer them a test drive. We are doing the same thing, but offering it under much different circumstances,” says Timberlake.

Let’s Get Talking
He says that built into the event was the potential for people to engage further with the brand. The event was held in September but there is already a continuous dialogue with people who have chosen to contact Mazda as a result. Says Timberlake: “We are creating a pool of people entering this property – and who knows where that could take us. It opens up a whole new area for a dialogue.”

But what it also means is that other automotive manufacturers will follow suit, which must surely mean the only way ahead is to keep on upping the ante.

There are also suspicions that experiential marketing is not all it is cracked up to be. Mike Garnham, chief executive at field marketing company, MSF, explains: “For years brand owners have used field marketing to sample products and then direct consumers to the point of purchase in order to generate product sales. It is simple, it is partly or wholly self-liquidating and it generates a Pavlovian call to purchase whenever the consumer is in the relevant retail environment.

“Brand experience marketing does have great creative appeal. Generating theatre around a brand is fun for all concerned. The problem is the feel-good factor rarely translates into sales in the same way that more tried-and-tested field activity does.”

Garnham believes that experiential marketing may work with high-ticket items but says, “most packaged goods owners need their investment to work harder”.

Making a Difference
This is the main challenge for the experiential marketing agencies. They need to prove that the experience they are providing consumers is either making an impact on sales or at least maintaining levels of loyalty.

Hooper admits this is a challenge the industry needs to face up to. “With above-the-line, they are able to evaluate everything they do and we need to be able to do the same. And although we do have evaluation models, our clients are still being used as guinea pigs as we explore new possibilities within experiential marketing. We have to ensure that we deliver if we want to continue attracting clients the way we have been.”

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