Experiential marketing is dead, long live experiential marketing

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Is experiential marketing dead, or in the throes of rebirth?

‘Experiential marketing’ has been around in one form or another for years. Wake The Bear’s Toby Strangewood examines whether the discipline is dead, or being reborn.

When first asked to write a piece on experiential marketing my gut response was to politely decline, as I’m not an experiential or event marketer. I’m not even someone who is regularly actively in the ‘experiential’ space.

But in working with experts in this space, I’ve learned that more often than not all things ‘experiential’ were planned and run by a unique team, whether that was at a specialised agency or a designated internal group within an agency focused solely on planning and running experiential campaigns day-in day-out. Often it was the team that did the ‘below the line’ stuff - stunts, sampling, helping with the odd event - and that was always siloed to the brand and campaign planning process.

Marketers and agency planners like myself would often habitually carve off a little bit of budget for ‘experiential stuff’, with the hope of trying to do something mildly interesting in a 10m x 10m space in Waterloo station at launch. There might have even been the ambitious hope of winning an award with a random stunt: We’ve seen some cool stuff, everything from Ghostbuster’s Stay Puft Marshmallow Man breaking through the floor in a London station to flash mobs amassing in city centres, from branded Google Cardboard to the rain-soaked student forcing yet another newly launched cereal bar into your hand as you emerge from a tube station.

So, with all those examples, why do I say experiential marketing dead?

Experiential is no longer a thing, it’s everything

It’s similar to how the thinking and expertise that was once segregated into the speciality of ‘Performance Marketing’ has now become integrated into the DNA of wider marketing. If a marketer or agency isn’t performance focused, then it’s going to get into trouble when investment doesn’t provide some form of direct growth for the brand, or at least a vaguely positive increase that can be plotted on a line-graph in a boardroom somewhere. Similarly, ‘experiential’ has evolved into something more all-encompassing. Experience design thinking becomes the fundamentals of how we communicate and interact, whether that’s passively or proactively with consumers and the world around them.

In a broader sense, the future of experiential isn’t just more immersive experiences or the next iteration of VR tech. It isn’t trying to outdo the last brand that had the same 10 x 10 space at Waterloo with something even more exciting than the Marshmallow Man, and it isn’t having more people on the street giving out free stuff in wacky ways. These are all overt brand moments. Where experience design matters is in joining all the overt and covert moments together into one succinct journey of consumer experiences.

The future of experiential is embedding experience design thinking into everything a brand does. It’s about that feeling when you first walk through the Apple Store’s large and impressive entry; seeing the beautifully laid out iPads, Macs, iPhones and all other Mac gear; being greeted by a casual but not too casual employee who doesn’t make you feel you’re being coerced into buying something and seeing a photography class taking place in a learning zone behind them.

Let’s not take that experience and feeling for granted just because we’ve got used to it when it’s done well. I’m fairly sure that no-one had that same feeling or experience when they walked into Dixons or Currys back in the day. Those retail locations had the very same purpose, to sell product, but how they did that was strikingly different.

An experiential moment with a brand can start in so many places. If you’re not a customer then it’s often the subjective reputation or your expectations about them. When you’re a customer brand experience is rooted in very different moments of truth. I believe that you only really know a brand when something goes wrong, not right. How do they respond, what do they do? It’s in that moment of brand fallibility that people want to see a human side from the organisation they are dealing with. Being human means calling something out, admitting to something, feeling empathy, using humour and saying how it really is.

So, if experiential is dead, how is it being reborn?

Chief Marketing Officers are evolving, either through title or attitude to become Chief Experience Officers. But it’s not just at the top - all of a brand’s consumer touchpoints have the opportunity for great experience moments. Whether that’s a grand flagship retail store or the number of phone rings before the customer service line answers. An experiential moment is embedded in the DNA of the products you touch: Everything adds to our understanding of what that brand means to us.

Many things might not even be noticed; sometimes a good brand experience is about a lack of friction and being invisible. No one turns on a light switch and says ‘Thanks British Gas, you’re awesome for providing this light’, but when the lights don’t work and they answer your call at 10pm, find you a convenient time for an engineer to visit and the engineer wipes her boots before walking in the house, these are the experiential moments you’ll remember. This is where loyalty and deeper brand connections with consumers are forged.

Marketing is probably as complex as it’s ever been, from the proliferation of content and media choices all the way to the rapidly changing behaviours of consumers. For brands looking for a solid place on which to build relationships in that ever-changing world, experiential has laid the ground work for a future where experience is everything.

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