No one really gets experiential.
Not even many experiential agencies.
Brands certainly struggle with it – and this is obvious from their briefs.
Most experiential agencies talk a good game, but in ways that differ wildly from one another.
So why all the fuzziness? Surely experiential should be defined as activities where people experience something – simple as that. The clue is in the name, right?
Well, that’s the established theory, but recently things have changed.
Many of today’s more popular and celebrated campaigns are being labelled as experiential, yet they don’t involve anyone having an experience.
One of the first signs of this shift, which has driven experiential increasingly into the mainstream, was the classic T-Mobile flash mob campaign in 2009. People called it experiential because there was music suddenly blaring out, dancers randomly popping up in the crowd, and a few hundred people at a rail station experiencing it.
But how did this work as a campaign? The people who were really being marketed to were not those at the flash event, but rather the millions who saw it through TV and YouTube, or wherever it was publicised.
But can this be experiential if most of the work it is doing is being consumed through video?
This was just the start. There are now lots of other examples, such as TV channel TNT’s ‘Push To Add Drama’ campaign from 2012, where a button on a podium was placed in a city centre location with a label saying: ‘Push to add drama.’
When a member of the public pushed the button, a live drama unfolded around them. In this case, only a handful of people actually experienced anything directly. But the video of the activity went viral.
So things are getting blurred. Was the agency that did this an experiential agency or an ad agency?
And the murkiness continues to multiply. Experiential is now used also to describe activities that are essentially brand services, such as last year’s Dulux ‘Let’s Colour’ campaign, where the paint brand went around freshening up and revitalising dilapidated and derelict areas through vibrant paint designs.
Then this year there was the Volvo campaign where the car brand launched a fluorescent spray paint that cyclists could use to cover their bikes to make them more visible and safer.
So we have reached a point in 2016 when campaigns ranging from this Volvo activation right down to basic sampling are generally understood to be part of the same kind of discipline.
So if experiential isn’t exclusively about experience, then what is it about? What is it that links these activities?
If we can draw the line between what links these two ends of the experiential spectrum, then we’ll have an understanding and definition of the discipline that we can use far more easily. And one that brands will be able to understand more clearly.
What links these campaigns is not specifically experience, but rather reality. They are all examples of where brands have gone out and taken their advertising into some kind of real world space.
Maybe someone experienced it at the time, as people can do in the real world in a way they can’t with TV ads. But equally, maybe they didn’t – perhaps they just heard about it.
This is the thread that links a lot of the new ideas we are seeing today. It is the thing that people are craving and which marketers often don’t give them.
I did a little experiment last year. I decided to check out a video of YouTube sensation du jour Zoella, and see how it contrasted with the advertising served around it.
It was not a tricky topic to investigate, as the privilege of seeing her pit ‘Boyfriend versus Best Friend’ could only be accessed by first watching a few seconds of an over-the-top movie-style ad where a lipstick brand was wreaking havoc on a city street.
This contrast highlights a peculiar problem inflicting the ad industry today. How has it come to pass that our entertainment – the stuff we consume to ‘get away from it all’ – is now more real than our advertising – the stuff that purports to provide real-world solutions to real-world problems?
Naturally, it’s got something to do with reality TV. What the producers of You’ve Been Framed and Big Brother realised 15 years ago, and what advertisers still haven’t, is that all the production values and artistic craft in the world can’t match the impact that grimy real world action affords you.
Reality gives us access to the actual challenges and issues that brands claim to solve, and in doing so opens up potential for ideas that aren’t just storytelling, but are inherently valuable in and of themselves; advertising ideas that take action.
This might involve providing something genuinely worthwhile, such as when Vitaminwater created a gallery to display and promote the work of upcoming creatives; or it might be something flippant, such as Harvey Nichols’ ‘I Spent It On Myself’ gift collection.
Either way, these approaches go further than merely exploiting reality to enhance creative; they instead integrate with it, in manners relevant to their products.
So what experiential gives people, whether they experience something or not, is a dose of something real – if they can experience it, all the better, as it will increase its effectiveness.
And so we have a definition of modern experiential: brands creating or doing something in the real world – or real-world ideas.
When you take this approach to experiential you can expand it over lots of marketing challenges, which formerly you may have struggled to brief or work with.
It makes experiential an all encompassing discipline, one that delivers the authenticity for brands that modern consumers are craving and – more than that – are starting to demand. Authenticity that will increase engagement and drive loyalty.
You can find out more about modern experiential in Sense’s new book, Real World Ideas – A Guide to Modern Experiential Marketing. You can download a free PDF here.