Don’t discount experiential

In a downturn, strong brands survive not through price cutting, but by engaging their customers through the brand experience, argues Mark Whelan

First let’s define what we mean by “experiential marketing”. I see it as an opportunity for consumers to “touch and feel” a brand, a chance for the brand’s DNA to come to life. That is why I strongly believe in creating a brand property from the inside out. Consider the cuddliness of Innocent’s Farmer’s Market, the family fun festival that is Ben & Jerrys Big Sunday, the high-octane lunacy of Red Bull’s Air Race. These experiential examples have the product and the brand right at their heart. Experiential is not The O2. That’s a (brilliant) sponsorship. Neither is it a free tub of Lloyd Grossman’s pasta sauce at Victoria station. That’s sampling (which at 8.15am was pretty gross).

Experiential has become one of those industry buzzwords, along with branded content, social media and, er, buzz. But is there a danger that in tough financial times like these it will be relegated or dismissed because it’s not “core”? I would argue that this is precisely the time to embrace it.

People are feeling pretty gloomy: they are under pressure financially, the papers they read are full of bad news. So what do they want to hear from brands? They’ll want to hear about price – that’s a given – so should we all just talk about how we’re cutting our prices? And what about brands that can go no lower? This is where the smart brands thrive. Sainsbury’s brand values are so strong that its customers don’t switch supermarkets, they switch to its own brand. And that says a lot – it’s the brand.

In some cases brand building means advertising, but we know the economics of ads. For a deeper brand affinity, logic supports a deeper brand experience. Imagine: “Persil did this thing where you take your kids to paint and draw and get dirty and then gave you free washing powder. A great day out for the kids AND their powder is actually very good”.

This brings us to the rules of engagement. The start point has to be the brand. Think about the positive attributes that you as a brand manager believe in and, therefore, the ones you want to share with consumers. Think positive attributes not the USP, because this is not selling.

Take a household cleaner brand; consumers don’t want to go to an event that demonstrates the fastest sink unblocking in the world, but they might want to participate in a beach clean-up and the party that follows. So in the rules of engagement, engagement is the key word. Involvement is the next. Evian saved a local Lido from closure – it involved the local community, who in turn threw themselves into the brand – literally.

One of my favourites is Carling’s Cold Beer Amnesty (not our idea, the client came up with it). The premise is that Carling is headline sponsor of a festival and offers the facility for punters to swap any can of warm lager they have lugged from the campsite for a nice ice-cold can of Carling. That is an act of confidence and empathy all in one go. The festival-goers loved it. All we did was expand the idea: the next year we put bands on by the arctic truck.

But what about the numbers? We can’t measure (yet) word of mouth, but if we can get numbers through great PR, or making a TV show, or getting online advocacy ignited, then it stacks up. A concert Cake produced for Motorola doubled awareness in one weekend through its TV broadcasts, PR and online buzz. The Red Bull Air Race draws thousands and is viewed by millions.

We also need to consider how the experience adds value. Orange’s festival tent isn’t just a hangout, it’s a place to recharge your phone and yourself. Orange provides the music and the power and punters have no problem paying for their smoothies and fiddling with the new phones on display.

You can even charge for experiences, as long as it’s a fair price and exceeds expectation of value for money. So even in times when we are all looking for a bargain, don’t discount experiential. 

Mark Whelan is creative director of brand entertainment agency Cake

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