Imagine you are sitting in a pub garden, enjoying the warm early evening weather, nursing a drink with a couple of friends at the end of a busy day. At the table next to you, two people are having a rather loud, but nevertheless interesting, conversation about why one of them has chosen a particular mortgage company.
Apart from thinking they might want to keep their voices down, you also start considering your own mortgage provider and wonder whether there are better options out there, based on what you have just heard.
Just as you are about to drag your attention back to your friends, the two at the adjacent table stand up and make a general announcement that they work on behalf of said mortgage provider and hand out leaflets about the company.
It’s called conversational advertising and is the latest in a long line of experiential marketing techniques that come under the heading of ambient or out-of-home media. But apart from providing actors with another avenue of revenue, is it something that consumers are likely to be enthralled or annoyed by?
Nick Adams is managing director of Sense Marketing Services and although he has used conversational marketing in campaigns, he concedes that it is a technique that is “of the moment” and unlikely to be used for years to come.
“At the moment, it is still an innovative technique and has the ability to surprise.
“But two or three years down the line, the idea will move on. About seven years ago, it was quite unique seeing people on the street dressed up in the logos of a particular company handing out information and talking to people. Now you cross the road to avoid them,” says Adams.
British Airways asked Sense to promote its BA Ease online check-in service by targeting regular business flyers travelling via Heathrow Express. Sense provided five teams consisting of two actors apiece. They were found on board Heathrow Express trains, talking about the ease of using BA’s online check-in facilities. After they identified themselves at the end of the journey, they distributed z-cards.
By identifying themselves, Sense was able to conduct research at the end of train journeys and found that 48% remembered at least one message, unprompted, and 81% said they would definitely check-in online.
Although these ambient techniques are innovative, the combination of a cluttered urban environment plus brand-weary consumers mean that even ambient media has to work hard to be heard.
Creative director of promotional marketing at The Marketing Store, Owen Catto, says/ “Everyone from charity muggers to fly posters want the attention of an audience, so we need to innovate to differentiate. But by its very nature, the medium feels renegade and therefore lends itself to ideas and messages that would normally be deemed too risky for traditional media like print, TV or in-store.
Whole brand story
“Great ambient activity often results from being part of a bigger brand campaign because it can build on messages delivered to an audience through other channels and doesn’t have to tell the whole brand story.”
This is what Lynx is currently doing to extend its “Boom boom chukka wow wow” TV campaign. It has hired a number of ad bikes being driven around major conurbations by young women in hot pants who are apparently mimicking the theme and feel of the TV commercial. They are also encouraging male onlookers to go to the website promoting a Lynx rally.
Karen Olson is managing director of Mobile Media, a mobile poster company that invented and launched the idea of ad vans 22 years ago and now has a fleet of 75 that includes ad scooters, ad bikes and liveried pedicabs. She says: “I think people are more receptive to messages out of home. With ad vans or similar, you are not giving them a choice to turn off, but you are also not intruding on their space.”
Return on investment
Mobile Media also works on the basis of targeting specific postcodes. “Because clients are looking for return on investment and accountability, we have a satellite tracking system on all our vehicles so we can tell exactly where they are every seven minutes,” says Olson.
And that is probably the misconception about ambient media – that it tends to be vague and scattergun. But practitioners insist that knowing your audience is a key aspect to getting it right.
Mike Taylor, joint managing partner at media planning consultancy Monkey Communications, comments: “One reason to go ambient is when you really know your audience. It’s only by gaining critical insight that you will be able to connect through a relevant message and gain unique cover within the marketing mix.
“The most important rule is to understand your audience. I don’t © just mean their age or how much they earn. It’s about really getting into their heads, and understanding how they go about their business.”
This precision is deemed so important that one company, set up in 2000, has called itself Kommando. Managing director Mark Evans says this is to “reflect the required military precision and discipline used to take a brand to the consumer environment”.
Evans says that he set up the company “to bring the art of guerrilla marketing into line with the demand for measurable brand experience activity”.
“During the 1990s, guerrilla marketing and almost all face-to-face marketing and street media were seen as fringe. I remember being thrown nothing but the scraps by marketing directors and a few agencies.”
But he also warns that ambient media is in danger of imploding because of its sudden increase in popularity. “The current trend shows that everyone is screaming out to take their brand, product and marketing message into consumer environments. The very thing that made field marketing, experiential and brand experience so special years ago is at severe risk of collapsing in on itself through unregulated overuse by amateurs.”
A few years ago a good street-led campaign stood out from the crowd, according to Adams. “Now almost every brand manager and marketing director wants a slice of the action and the very agencies that snubbed the concept as crude and fringe are now attempting it and we even see the giant media agencies attempting to get their cut and set up their own internal so-called experiential agencies.
“Here lies the end of the beginning, because when you take a brand into a consumer’s personal space it becomes personal – get it wrong here and you really damage the brand and possibly the reputations of all parties involved in the process.”
Kommando provides Pixman media solutions that includes a backpack-powered handheld projector that was used by Virgin/EMI to promote The Kooks during the Brit Awards when an image of the band was projected onto the walls of Earl’s Court during the awards.
So the challenges facing ambient media are probably greater than those faced by other marketing disciplines. The very nature of ambient means that the parameters within which to work have to be constantly redefined.
Evans says/ “The art of consumer engagement will become more specialised as the environments become more challenging and consumers more reluctant to be engaged. The future will lie in the ability to provide measurable tracking and feedback to any campaign. It will also revolve around the ability to be more selective in targeting and immersing a consumer in specific environments with a brand and exchanging sensory experience of a product there and then in real and relevant terms.”
It makes TV advertising seem so simple.