Reinventing experiential: the new age of marketing

The marketing sector can be a complicated place as new marketing tools and techniques are launched, almost on a weekly basis. Powered by The Drum Network, this regular column invites The Drum Network's members to demystify the marketing trade and offer expert insight and opinion on what is happening in the marketing industry today that can help your business tomorrow.

Experiential marketing’s time has come. Changing retail conditions, a younger generation that prioritises experiences above physical acquisitions, and widespread availability of new technology are all contributing to experiential marketing climbing brands’ list of priorities. To determine what the future of experiential marketing will look like, The Drum invited members of The Drum Network to a roundtable discussion to explore the evolution and endgame of experiential.

The rise and fall of the gimmick-as-experience industry, whether that was painting a monument a virulent colour or floating a statue down the Thames, has led to a marketing industry that is older and wiser about the realities of experiences for consumers.

For one thing, the old hands who helped to mastermind those stunts have had time to reflect on what those stunts actually offered to the brands behind them, which has led to a redoubled focus on developing accurate measurements for immersive campaigns. There is a widespread recognition that one-off stunts do not necessarily offer long-term benefits to the brands associated with them, while at the same time well-crafted immersive experiences for audiences can help strengthen a brand’s relationship with their consumers.

Teddy Watt, CEO at Marble LDN, says that agencies are seeing increased demand from brands who want to communicate directly with younger audiences at live events: “I've heard a good ten times in meetings that Barclaycard stat from the end of 2018 that in the under-35 bracket experience outsold product purchase for the first time ever. It's a much more engaging way to build trust with your brand, and 73% of people are more likely to buy a product if they've had a good experience with that brand.”

Gemma Cutler-Culcough, head of marketing at RPM, believes that the pendulum is swinging back towards live events as a result of brands recognising that drive for live engagement: “RPM is 26 years old, so it's been around for essentially all of the time of experiential. There was certainly a stage a few years ago where the agency was out-and-out experiential; it was a festival agency until we started moving into [retail] because one of our clients asked us to do that, and we started to pull back on experiential. Funnily enough in the last couple of years we're seeing more need and want for brand experience and experiential, so it's done a little bit of a bell curve for us.

“It is interesting about brands proving themselves in that direct-to-consumer environment, where essentially it's not what you say but what you do that counts, and that was as true for us 26 years ago as it is now.”

The rise of retail experiential

At the same time, long-term trends around retail and the British high street have opened up new avenues for experiential. The ongoing conversion of retail stores into mini esports stadiums or ‘experience stores’ proves that consumers are looking for shopping experiences that go beyond walking in and out of stores, with the only change being how much they carry on the way out. Cutler-Culcough said: “Anyone who is concerned about the future of experiential needs to look at retail.”

Watt agreed, arguing that turning retail stores into centres for experiences is an antidote for the rhetoric around the death of the high street. Of one client, he said:

“Their vision of the high street is bringing together the artisan-type services like shoe cobblers and then bringing in an experience-type model by allowing people to be able to communicate with one another, and make them into places where people can validate and talk and feel and touch etc. That's how you'll regenerate interest in the high street.”

New consumer tech products including VR, AR and mixed-reality platforms like Microsoft’s Hololens are increasingly being deployed to create brand new retail experiences. Sue Wickler explained that while the tech to date has been limited, its evolution offers even more opportunities for brands who want to connect directly with their consumers:

“I think in the next three to five years it's going to completely change, and 5G is going to completely accelerate that as well. With mixed reality it's going to be really exciting; I think it's going to bring the fans and consumers closer to the experience they're having with the brand that they're seeing.”

David Finch, senior creative at Cubo, believed that proving the viability of technology for experiential falls on the shoulders of the agencies: “We talked about the clunkiness of technology from five years ago - if a client's had that experience, you've got to educate them that that's not going to be like that tomorrow. From a creative point of view it's about taking them on that journey and making them realise that that's actually an integral part of what we do.”

However, the panel also believe that on its own tech-based experiential has limited appeal, being closer to the gimmicky experiential that the industry is keen to move away from. Instead, they argue, it has to either be the centrepiece of a larger event or nested within it, as a ride at a theme park benefits from the setting and lead-up to the ride itself.

The panel also believe that creating that overall experience still requires specialist expertise. Jack Lamacraft, Managing Director of The Park, noted that: “We specialise because we need to. Clients like to know they are buying specialist expertise, but our brief is always broader than just events. No campaign can succeed in delivering brand outcomes with experiential alone. We don’t have our own in-house creative team as there aren’t that many creatives out there who are actually good at experiential creative.”

Agency experiential agonies

Despite the optimism around experiential role for brands and retail, the panel was quick to note that it is still very much the red-headed stepchild of the marketing world when it comes to prioritising, budgeting and attribution. They argued that experiential is still often seen as an ‘add-on’ at the end of the budget, a ‘nice to have’ extra in addition to more traditional methods of advertising rather than being integrated with the main media budgets.

Part of the issue is still that clients require some gentle steering about the tangible benefits of an experiential campaign, but there are also clients who are loath to try experiential campaigns for the first time due to economic instability in Britain.

“I think what we're seeing with international clients, their projects are changing. When they're locked into a sponsorship or a big launch festival strategy, their budgets are inconsistent. When we're seeing changes, like in the UK more campaign-led activations, that's where people are nervous at the moment because of what's going on with the economic environment, people are nervous and holding onto budget that might confirm activation and events until the end of the year.

“CMOs are under a lot of pressure to justify their relationship with agencies and effective measurement and using data to deliver ROI is the best way for us as an industry to counter that.”

Some of the responsibility for managing those expectations lies with the agencies. Carlo Montemarano, Head of Experiential at Haygarth, said: “With brands that have never really done experiential before, they often have a tendency to throw huge budgets at the world’s best thing that just takes forever and ensures that you’ll never do it again. There is a responsibility for agencies to rein clients in.”

Despite those issues, the panel was positive about the future of experiential and its potential to reshape brands’ priorities for marketing, provided agencies take a lead role in determining that future. CEO of Fuse Louise Johnson articulated the priorities: “I think the future is bright; I think the changes that we'll see will have more technology bringing fans or consumers closer to that brand or experience. I think it will become more important to extract more value through deeper integration into media, around an experience, and I think the industry needs to take a smarter approach to measurement and KPI setting around experiences.”

While the panel noted – a little ruefully – that sometimes the ‘success’ of an experiential campaign still relies on whether the CEO of the client company had a good time, that smarter approach to measurement is already in place at the specialist agencies. As younger people come to expect experience over regular service and brands look for new touchpoints with audiences, it falls to those agencies to share that expertise and grow the experiential industry collaboratively.

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