Branded experiences are the big attraction

Big-name brands are taking control of their experiential activity by hosting their own events in an effort to create the right atmosphere and better target the audience.


Brands are becoming more ambitious when it comes to hosting experiential activity. It is now more common for branded experiences to be attractions in themselves, as opposed to sideshows at festivals, sports venues or concerts.

Weekly Sky Ride cycling events have become the centrepiece of the satellite broadcaster’s experiential marketing strategy, as its sponsorship of the sport has been embedded deeply into the business. Sky now even has a director of cycling, Tricia Thompson, who is responsible not only for the Sky Ride, but also for Team Sky – the professional cycling team for which the broadcaster holds the naming rights.

Thompson says that Sky’s involvement in the sport has been expanding since it became principal sponsor of national governing body British Cycling in 2008.

Team Sky was announced in February 2009 and Sky Ride – a series of organised bike rides that members of the public are free to join – was added as a natural extension later that summer. It began in London as a rebranding of the annual London Freewheel ride, but events now take place almost every weekend at locations nationwide. Experiential agency RPM, which operated the event in its previous incarnation, continues to run it under Sky’s sponsorship.

The Sky Rides divide into larger ‘city’ events that welcome riders of all abilities and smaller ‘local’ rides for people with similar skill levels.

But Sky Ride is a bigger commitment than just a sponsorship. According to Thompson, it is part of a long-term project to increase grassroots participation in sport within local communities.

“Sky Ride was created as something we could own and shape, that we could roll out across the UK to get all our customers and people across the country onto a bike. We open up city centres to cyclists. It was about creating something that was unique and wasn’t already out there.”

Though the scale of experiential events varies widely, many more brands are owning and running events themselves, not just setting up a stand at someone else’s venue.

Flight BA2012: Restaurant was designed to look like the inside of an aitrcraft

Sony launched its PlayStation Vita handheld games console by creating multipurpose pop-ups in high street shops earlier this year. As the manufacturer wanted to reach a very specific audience of users and influencers, it would have been almost impossible to gain the desired impact through any experiential activity where it was not completely in control of the publicity (see case study, below).

Unusual marketing objectives are also why British Airways recently chose to host its own pop-up, Flight BA2012, in Shoreditch, east London. The venue, which was created by experiential agency Cake and open between 3 and 17 April, was designed to reflect three parts of BA’s Olympic sponsorship activity – food, film and art.

As part of its sponsorship of the London 2012 Olympics, BA launched the Great Britons competition last year, offering career opportunities for three individuals in those three fields. The winner in the food category was asked to produce menus for BA flights in the run-up to the Games, mentored by celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal; the film winner wrote a short script with coaching from actor Richard E Grant; and the art winner designed the livery for nine BA planes, helped by artist Tracey Emin.

BA global sponsorship manager Luisa Fernandez explains: “We wanted to combine all three experiences to give a platform for our winners to showcase their work, which couldn’t be done in any other medium. We chose Flight BA2012, which as you walked in was an art gallery-cum-bar. It also contained a 56-seater cinema that played the winning film on a loop
and a 56-seater restaurant that looked like the inside of an aircraft.”

But while BA created a highly customised pop-up, designed to draw in an audience with attractions that are redolent of the brand and its current campaign, other marketers prefer to attach their experiential activity to larger venues. Brands then get the benefit of the footfall naturally passing through the venue.

Nissan’s Innovation Station exhibition at The O2 gets passing traffic from the 6-7 million people a year who visit the concert arena, but it also receives visits from consumers who see it as an attraction in itself and from prospective car buyers who can book a test drive starting at The O2 (see Q&A, below).

Digital TV provider Freeview also combined both strategies by running roadshows at shopping centres in the run-up to Christmas. Through online publicity it sought to attract its own audience to information stands, which were run by agency Gekko and featured fairground-themed games, but passing shoppers also stopped by. Retail marketing manager James Chamber says that siting the activity in shopping centres allowed consumers to be directed into electronics stores where Freeview demonstrators were on hand.

At Ecover, which makes environmentally sustainable cleaning products, events and digital manager Peter Rosier says that brands shouldn’t dismiss the opportunities of more traditional experiential marketing. In Ecover’s case, this mainly involves taking its Discovery Lab tent – designed by agency Closer – to festivals. By picking the right event, he claims,
it is possible to attract a well-targeted audience with a receptive attitude.

“With the feelgood nature of festivals, we find consumers are in an open frame of mind, whether it be to new music or new brands,” he says. “At a festival you’re not in a rush and happy to interact with brands, which is important to us as we look to engage at a deeper level. We can be highly targeted too, choosing events that fit with our target market to maximise cut-through.”

Brands running their experiential marketing through their own events will always be in control of the audience they want to attract and the atmosphere they want to create, but there are still opportunities for brands to communicate with the right people at the right times in other settings. They just need to be chosen carefully.


John Parslow
Marketing and communications manager


Marketing Week (MW): What is the idea behind Nissan’s Innovation Station at The O2 arena?

John Parslow (JP): It is a three-year partnership with The O2. As part of that we wanted to launch a hub to present our brand innovation ideas, created by our agencies Lodestar and RPM. The first part of that story is Leaf, our electric car. We attract visitors who want to know more about Leaf and electric vehicle technology because that’s what we focus 60-70% of the exhibition space on. We also get school parties and a whole host of business communications partners.

MW: What is its objective?

JP: To reinforce our ‘innovation that excites’ brand positioning. The ‘excites’ part is not just about technology. It is about having fun and being a forward-looking brand. In the past 18 months, more than 300,000 people have passed through the exhibition space. We want them to reassess the Nissan brand.

MW: How else do you attract people to visit?

JP: We run test drive sessions from out of The O2. We have taken 20 cars from there for a mass test drive event, which is quite unique, because with an electric vehicle you can actually drive inside The O2. You start your experience inside the tent. We have done that for bigger fleet clients like British Gas and consumer test drive days.

MW: What else do you gain from hosting it at The O2?

JP: From a reach point of view, The O2 offers us the opportunity to get 6-7 million people who visit the entertainment venue each year. It is a great destination hub to capture that kind of passing traffic and to be part of that entertainment experience.

MW: How do you use the Innovation Station to demonstrate your products?

JP: We can use it for model launches, or to showcase concept cars that might only have been shown in Tokyo. But it is not a car showroom because we can only get two cars in there at a time. The rest of the space is about engagement experiences. It is good exposure for our cars that is neither intrusive or a sales environment.

MW: What do you do to take advantage of the exhibition’s content outside the venue?

JP: It allows us to capture data as well as allowing people to share their experiences. We have photo booths where people can have their picture taken in a ‘green screen’ environment and share that. That allows us to network through our Facebook and Twitter accounts. It gives us reach and a lot of exposure. We conduct research with the people who have been attending, into their propensity to buy or consider us in the future. The change in their perceptions is huge. They are twice as likely to buy as they would have been before.

Case study: Sony PlayStation’s Vita Rooms


In preparation for taking its PlayStation Vita handheld games console to market, Sony wanted to get it into the hands of “the right people” quickly, says Sony Computer Entertainment UK marketing director Alan Duncan.

The manufacturer’s solution was to create three Vita Rooms – pop-up spaces in Manchester, Glasgow and London that offered free trials of the new console along with entertainment provided by BBC DJs Tim Westwood and Chris Moyles.

Duncan wanted an environment where the manufacturer could create additional marketing content by interviewing people trying out the Vita as well as software developers who produce the games that are played on it.

The Vita Rooms provided this space, and also acted as a destination to bring journalists together with celebrities to generate media coverage, as well as allowing Sony to discuss with sellers how retail marketing opportunities could be pursued.

Duncan says: “If we had only being using it as a sampling venue it would have been a major over-investment. However, the different roles it was playing in the campaign meant the return on investment was strong.”

By owning and being in control of the Vita Rooms, as opposed to having a presence at a bigger destination event, Sony was able to pursue its own publicity strategies to attract the footfall it wanted from its target audience. This included retailers, journalists, bloggers and other media professionals, as well as gaming fans. Sony’s marketers also measured the ‘buzz’ created by the event on social media.

The Vita Rooms idea grew out of a similar project around the launch of the PlayStation 3 console, where Sony took over part of the Old Truman Brewery in east London.
In the case of the PlayStation Vita, Duncan wanted the events to be more mobile, so Manchester and Glasgow were visited before the console’s eventual launch in London.

Top trends 2012 predictions

peter rosier

Peter Rosier
Events and digital manager

With the emergence of social and digital media, the levels on which we deliver experiential marketing are evolving. Using experiential activities as a one-way conversation to put a sample in your consumer’s hand is a poor execution of what can be a really valuable tool. We engage with consumers using our digital and social platforms to dovetail with our other activities and ultimately continue the two-way conversation.


Luisa Fernandez
Global sponsorship manager
British Airways

Experiential marketing is becoming a way of engaging customers who do not necessarily fly with us. I think we will see a lot more of that in the coming years. It is about using a mixture of channels depending on what you are trying to achieve. The beauty of experiential is that we are able to demonstrate our service in a really tangible way. People are able to touch and feel the BA brand.


Tricia Thompson
Director of cycling

Experiential is a real opportunity for brands to create their own concept, but people need to consider carefully whether they can commit to such an investment – you need to understand the market. Sky Ride shows Sky in a different light. We are committed in our investment in Sky Ride until 2013, and we are quite rare in owning and creating this campaign.

alan duncan

Alan Duncan
Marketing director
Sony Computer Entertainment UK

In the past couple of years digital media and HTML5 websites have allowed demonstration of our products at a much deeper level online. However, there is no replacement for the physical experience of the product and it being in people’s lives around their passion points, whether that be shopping or nights out. Experiential still has a key role to play. As the retail environment becomes more challenging and the number of retail outlets declines, it is important for us to maintain our presence in people’s lives through a physical experience.

john parslow

John Parslow
Marketing communications manager

People now visit an average of 1.2 dealers before buying a car. In the past, people would visit three different brands, but now all the research is done online or through experiential and word-of-mouth explanation. We are working hard for the future on how you make that experience more customer-focused.

The role of experiential becomes hugely important because we have got to find ways to showcase our brand and product away from the dealership environment.



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