08 The Year Ahead – Experiential

Brands are finding themselves being scrutinised by increasingly savvy consumers, so the pressure is on to be even more believable, credible and consistent. By Tim Leighton, Fitch Live

Brands need to get authentic in an intimate way

Brands are finding themselves being scrutinised by increasingly savvy consumers, so the pressure is on to be even more believable, credible and consistent. By Tim Leighton, Fitch Live

Let me be clear about something straight away: brands are definitely a good thing. They’ve brought emotional depth to the consumer experience, transforming mere form and function into something altogether more interesting and rich. And, as time goes on, consumers’ awareness, understanding, interaction and fascination with brands continues to grow. But we can’t have it all our own way. Brands bring with them a responsibility. They may invest products with personality, but that personality is open to testing and scrutiny. 

Increasingly savvy consumers are doing just that. They are demanding meaningful relationships to discover where a brand’s heritage lies, what drives it and how it behaves behind the scenes. This is more than corporate reputation. There is a level of permission that brands need to fulfil in order to flourish within people’s lives, defined across diverse criteria from environmental ethics to street cred and attitude.

Finding an authentic appeal
Authenticity is a key driver here. Not every brand can possibly appeal to every consumer and nor should they try to; but they must be believable, credible and consistent. Achieving authenticity is as much about medium as it is
about message. In terms of medium, it’s certainly not going to be a 30-second thing and, in terms of message, it’s not a simple “hey look at my latest cool product”. Relationships that stand a chance of making the distance will take a little bit more substance and nurturing – otherwise, you’re just pimping your brand. 

So, if your consumers want to get brand intimate in an authentic way, where do they go? Enter “brand experience”. This, the theory goes, is the way to bring your brand and your consumers together for something rather special. The reality, however, often turns out to be a rather misjudged and superficial blind date. Because what many clients and agencies tend to mean when they say “brand experience” is really one of two paler imitations: branded experiences (taking existing entertainment platforms and adding a logo) or grandiose sampling activities (the ones with bigger budgets than their supermarket car park counterparts). 

There is a third, more authentic way – immersing audiences in a bespoke expression of your brand. Today, two channels are emerging as having the power to create these more meaningful conversations with wrap-around experiences: digital and experiential. Those who exploit digital channels (and web 2.0 technologies in particular) to their greatest potential are creating awesome brand experiences. The best brand sites are places where people want to be, discover more, give more and, in so doing, build relationships with those brands. But even digital reaches some inbuilt and limiting parameters. No matter how good the experience is, it’s still conducted through screens and keyboards.

Don’t get me wrong, digital can offer an incredibly rich experience. Nonetheless, we’re starting to see the next step being tentatively taken by progressive brands that are pushing beyond digital into the real world, creating unique and immediate ways to engage consumers. And, as the twin pressures of consumer lust for involvement and the decline of traditional channels are increasingly brought to bear, it is time for brands to take on the challenge. Most famously, Innocent translated its brand into a take on the village fete. People even paid to spend time with their favourite smoothie brand.

So what’s holding back the explosion of dedicated brand experiences in the marketing mix? Well, most planning models are still based around product launch cycles, rather than the needs of the brand. Brand campaigns have often been regarded as either a luxury or a desperate act by a brand that has had nothing to say for too long. 

It would seem that more meaningful brand dialogue is fast becoming a necessity in consumers’ eyes and possibly more important than the individual products or services themselves (though clearly brands are nothing without them). Clients and agencies alike are beginning to see that experiential offers a unique space in which brands can be the brands they want to be and where consumers can get intimate with them. All of which means that we may have to consider a new and very different brand planning model that is independent of the endless need to push products and services. 

Tim Leighton, Head of Strategy at Fitch Live

The perceived experience

Experiential marketing has not taken off as was expected because many brand marketers still need convincing of its benefit and value. By Steve Hemsley

Experiential marketing has been punching above its weight for some time now. Industry estimates suggest this sector is worth about £200m a year, which is less than 1% of the total UK advertising spend which passed £19bn in 2006 (source: Advertising Association). Yet its ability to shout loudly means it is creeping up the agenda of many brand owners and their media agencies and this is likely to continue in 2008. 

The problem faced by those promoting this sector is the perception, rightly or wrongly, that experiential marketing is an expensive option for brands. It means agencies will continue to come under pressure to demonstrate a real return on investment. 

The specialist agencies argue that with such a fragmented media the chance to speak to consumers face-to-face in such a creative and engaging way is worth every penny. They insist it is often their work within an integrated campaign which is the tipping point to winning over a consumer. The hard bit is proving this because many brand marketers have yet to be convinced.

Juggling the variables
One difficulty is the results from a brand experience or live event depend on so many variables. What is the consumer’s state of mind, what is the location, how good is the promotional team carrying out the work and what other marketing communications are taking place at the same time? 

Ed Thaw, a creative strategist at brand consultants Venture Three, believes experiential marketing will never attract large budgets until measurement techniques become more robust. “Would a brand have the courage to allocate £18m to an experiential campaign and really see what it could achieve? Not yet,” he says. “Brands want to think differently and use experiential ideas, but all the time the discipline remains at number five or six on the media plan because of worries over return on investment, it won’t attract the big money.” 

Head of brand experience for Coca-Cola GB, James Williams, works with agency RPM and says experiential work allows the business to have a direct dialogue with consumers in a more personal way than any other media. Yet he expects to see a real return from any activity.

“We will continue to choose the right marketing response to the brief and if that is experiential next year then that is what we will invest in. We work very closely with our agency to demonstrate a good return,” he says. 

What brand owners like Coca-Cola really want to see is this sector fighting with a more united voice in 2008. Traditionally, individual agencies have been more concerned with protecting their own interests. This was the main reason the Live Brand Experience Association collapsed in 2006. The DMA has tried to bring the trade together with the launch of the experiential marketing committee this year. 

Savoury food brand Ginsters is certainly a fan of experiential marketing after organising a road show in the north of the UK this year. Senior brand manager Larry File used EPOS data from local stores to assess the success of the activity. He reports that sales rose by 250% in the week of the road show and were still 150% higher two weeks later. “Experiential work is hard to measure but it can have a big effect if a campaign runs alongside other marketing activity,” he says. 

“We insisted that our experiential agency i2i worked with the PR agency Brando to maximize the impact of the roadshow.” 

There is a role for media agencies to encourage clients to dip a toe into experiential waters next year.

Seeing through consumers’ eyes
Matthew Hook, head of strategy at Vizeum, says the best media planners can put themselves in the consumer’s shoes and do have a thorough understanding of the experiential sector. “Rather than starting with broadcast touch points media planners should begin with the most immersive and direct relationship with the brand, which will oftenbe in experiences,” he says.

“Media agencies need to make the most of their understanding of all kinds of brand experiences and not just events. Digital experiences are often the most important in establishing an on-going dialogue between the consumer and the brand.” 

He adds that in 2008 there will be opportunities to link brand experiences in the real world with activity in virtual worlds, such as Second Life. The importance of online to this sector makes sense when you consider that much of the power of word of mouth has moved online thanks to blogs and social networks. 

O2 has doubled its experiential marketing budget in a year with agency Sledge and head of sponsorship, Amanda Jennings, says the most effective media combination next year will be a mixture of online and experiential live events. “We will spend more time earning rather than expecting customer loyalty by giving people brand experiences,” says Jennings. “These could be at the O2Wireless festival, The O2 arena or online experiences offering people free airtime and credits.” 

Head of consumer marketing for Microsoft’s online services group in the UK, Paul Davies, says consumers expect more from advertisers and have become used to being communicated with through brand experiences. Microsoft has been running activity around its sponsorship of the interactive web drama Kate Modern.

“What brand owners will demand is evidence that experiential activity can have a commercial angle and impact on sales as well as brand awareness. This needs to happen if the sector is to mature,” he says. “Otherwise brands are
being asked to take a leap of faith.” 

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