Immersive content is the way forward in a world of multiple screens and channels

Once upon a time, interruption advertising was not just the only way, it was the noble way: pre-planned interruptions of a television programme that everyone – and I mean everyone – would watch huddled around the TV set, centrepiece of the living room of any respectable family in town.

Marc Matthieu breaker

With Mad Men back on the air for its final series, I’m compelled to write partly about this glorious time in marketing’s history, a time when the ad was everything, when an ad meant massive viewing and the right ad meant massive sales, a time defined by the invention of the 20th century – the television.

Communications theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote that “societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication”. I believe that the answer lies in the fusion of both, but what is certain is that the multiplicity of channels we interact with nowadays has created a new reality – a world of individuals looking to take their own path, a culture of exploration and personalisation – at scale.

As marketers, too often we operate within the paradigm of this once-upon-a-time golden era, with too many brands operating as if the mass-media-only model sufficed to stay in touch with the people we serve – and deliver the bottom line. Mass makes sense these days only when complemented by an ability to contextualise and personalise our offering through a multiplicity of independent yet interconnected channels – a multiplicity of ‘devices’, people’s multiple lenses into the world of ‘content’.

Don’t get me wrong – as in the film or theatre world, there is still a huge play for great entertainment superbly performed on the main (TV) stage to a captive audience.

But ‘immersive’ is the new and absolutely necessary complement to the Greek tragedy. Think PunchDrunk, the immersive theatre company, carrying out performances such as Sleep No More or The Drowned Man across an entire building, on multiple floors, in hundreds of rooms. The viewers experience three hours of performance on a single visit, yet they have only scratched the surface of the content prepared for them. If the acting were to be strung together consecutively, it would total more than 72 hours – yet it’s one play. But each viewer can experience their very own personal version of the play, able to see something unique that no other person will see, allowed to explore and create their own interpretation of the theme, the storyline. It is the viewer’s play – not just the play – and while they may respond to the terminology of ‘audience’ or ‘spectator’, they’re in control of the story they make.

So in this new multichannel and multiscreen world – not that different from the multifloor and multiroom world of immersive entertainment above – where people wander their own path, where we can no longer control them, we must never forget that, while one of our roles is to inform people, our other imperative  is to involve them, to entertain them. And entertaining today is about creating a world in which people can immerse themselves in whatever way pleases them most, which means you may find yourself and your brand creating content in the most unlikely ways.

For Lego, it meant making a film so that fans could enjoy the brand on the big screen at the cinema or on the small screen in their home. It gave fans a new way to engage with and love the brand. For Red Bull, it meant publishing The Red Bulletin, a magazine that “delivers the unexpected with stories that inspire, inform, and entertain”, giving the ready-for-anything explorers they serve another outlet (and occasion) for them to further identify themselves with the brand, creating more moments of relevance in their lives.

So if we want to enable our consumers to immerse themselves into our brand, we must embrace this new reality – one where Walt Disney, not just Don Draper, names the game. The ability to orchestrate multiple skill sets, working across multiple channels, telling a single story that everyone experiences differently, will create the magic that the people we serve are waiting for.

Marc Mathieu is senior vice-president of marketing at Unilever.