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Experiential is now limitless, so how do we choose where to invest and focus?

As part of The Drum’s Experiential Marketing Deep Dive, Carat’s Sam Browne outlines five considerations planners should bear in mind when thinking about driving brand value from experiences.

It used to be quite easy to define experiential. I remember organizing costly physical events and sampling giveaways earlier in my career under the banner of ‘experiential’. Yes, they reached a few thousand people, but ‘am I creating real impact for the consumer?’ was always a conundrum.

However, with the evolution of digital and data, any touch point along a consumer’s brand journey now has the potential to become ‘experiential’. Most consumers are effectively carrying experience devices around in their pockets right now, meaning that, as consumers, we can immerse ourselves incredibly deeply with any brand, at any time, any place – and 85% of marketers and business leaders believe digital events are here to stay.

The thing is, if everything can be experiential, the marketer is faced with an infinite canvas of creative choices – so should they invest in the bot to add a quick easy Q&A ‘experience’ on the website, or will an augmented reality 3D sunglasses changing room ‘experience’ really help close the sale or increase the basket? For me, with the growth in possibilities these digital experiential moments, it can be a bit daunting to approach, so there are five considerations I would recommend any planner to bear in mind when thinking about how to drive more brand value from leveraging experiences.

One of the biggest frustrations I have is when I see brilliant experiences presented as part of a suite of creative ideas, but without relevant context to ensure appropriate scale. Advertisers are getting better and better at delivering platform-relevant push messaging, but not always considering what experience they should allow consumers to move on to. So often we click through to a numb corporate website or get forgotten about as soon as the cheque has cleared.

My first consideration is to remember that those experiential-style experiences can really happen anywhere in the consumer journey. So consider the entirety of the process and what potential consumer experiences are there off the back of your mass media. Don’t just stop at the commerce opportunity – some of your consumers will always be in a moment where a deeper brand experience adds value.

My favorite experiential brand remains Nespresso for this very reason. Admittedly I am probably biased by the fact it seems to have noted my pandemic buying habit change and recently declared me ‘An Ambassador’… (I know you’re looking it up). Its experience is so carefully curated and crafted, with digital and physical touchpoints invested in and optimized for me, that I’m drawn in to continue shopping… buying ‘refills’ shouldn’t be that enjoyable.

The second consideration is therefore simple – people like to be recognized and understood. Brand experiences today should always be tailored, so consider their context, utilize data and react accordingly to behavior.

Of course, it’s harder to know where to invest when we recognize experiences themselves are changing the model. Take, for example, a considered purchase like a car. A few years ago, conversion rates in the showroom were perhaps 20%. The shopper wouldn’t have had many deep experiences with their potential new car before that point and, as such, they still had purchasing uncertainty for a salesperson to chip away at. During my last car purchase, the lovely salesperson in the showroom seemed ready to focus on after-sales services – and was right to do so as I was very much doing a final check, having thoroughly researched the online reviews, virtual tours and test drives already. These digital experiences had pretty much done the job of the ‘experiential’ experience of the showroom a decade or so ago.

So thirdly, I suggest considering the lifetime value opportunity experiences provide. Invest (but invest less) on experiences around broader media that may not move the dial as much and focus more investment per contact on those other experiences that are really driving purchase – even if they’re not at the final point of sale. It’s worth also noting that the value of your experiential assets is unlikely to stay static, especially with years like 2020 and 2021 hitting us – ruthless ongoing measurement and reassessment of impact is critical to an optimal consumer experience.

For lower consideration categories, like FMCG, there are different challenges. Many of these companies don’t own the entire journey, with the key consumer touchpoints with their brand occurring through intermediates such as bars and shops. This is one reason we see alcohol brands integrating vertically, creating ‘taprooms’ and curating visitor centers in order to take greater ownership end-to-end. However, physical ownership of a space isn’t always necessary. The experience can be improved virtually with impact for the brand relationship. Over the last two years, one of my favorite finds was a little website that, within a few months of lockdown, simply and effectively recreated the bar ambiance noise for my end of week cold cool beer. The virtual chatter of a bar made all the difference to my beer drinking experience – music, some noisy neighbors… bliss. Sadly, it was unbranded… a missed opportunity.

So the fourth consideration is: you don’t need to own the moment to enhance and take ownership of the experience any more. Think of these as ‘guerrilla experiences’ to hijack and take advantage of – although if you do this, findability becomes a critical consideration as part of the plan.

Which brings us to the newer direct to consumer (DTC) brands, which are often so beloved by their customers precisely because they understand the importance of the end-to-end experience. They can deliver from the first trip to the website to the feeling you get when you open a beautifully designed box of product – and, crucially, they have put themselves in control of all of it. But even some of the best DTC brands know that there is still a place for a human brand experience. For example, Apple and Nespresso have their shops, First Direct has its excellent call centers. These experiences complement the digital elements and bring trust in the brand’s expertise, and an ability for the brand to empathize more than ever.

As such, the fifth consideration is this: just because we can reduce human involvement now, is it always right to? (Those car salespeople are still there with a modified role).

In summary, ensure your experiential plans cover all bases effectively and efficiently, but invest deeply when you impact the human at the center of it all. That person needs to be the heart of the campaign and it’s their innate needs for connection and experience that should determine what, when, where and how virtual experiences are delivered for maximum return.

Sam Browne is global client lead at Carat.

From festivals to retail installations to unmissable activations, we examine the avenues open to marketers to reach consumers enjoying their newfound freedom in The Drum’s Experiential Deep Dive.

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