Spectacular. Mind-bending. Out of this world. All words increasingly used to describe experiential marketing campaigns that are growing more awe inspiring than ever. Helene Dancer finds out why, in an age of screens, experiences are more important than ever… And the trick? It’s all in the treat.

Snow falling when it’s not snowing. A yoga class on a rooftop in Central London. A man leaping to Earth from space. Experiential marketing has, literally, hit new heights. And it’s going to continue to do so, as brands come to realize that orchestrating a memorable real-world experience can connect with audiences on an emotional level like never before.

“When I started working in experiential marketing 20 years ago, we were the poor relation,” says Sarah Trumble, founder and director of Circus, the agency responsible for unusual snowfalls. These were created for TK Maxx’s 2017 White Christmas campaign, where winning customers were treated to their houses being covered in real snow. “The whole industry has shifted massively,” says Trumble. “Brands are now seeing the value in being able to give people an experience that allows them to participate.”

A study conducted by marketing agency Freeman underlines this shift, concluding that over half of global CMOs see brand experiences as a way to forge ongoing relationships with audiences, and more than one in three CMOs set aside 21 to 50 percent of their budgets for brand experience campaigns.

It’s clear that having a real-world experience is more important now than ever – especially since we spend the majority of our waking hours interacting with screens these days. Tickets to Secret Cinema’s expansive, environment-replicating theatrical film screenings sell out within hours (who doesn’t want to do battle with a real-life Stormtrooper?). And immersive theatre company Punchdrunk has grown even more experimental with its multi-sensory productions, working with brands like Absolut to create a creepy mobile gaming app that blurs the line between the digital and physical, culminating in three live levels playing out in locations across London.

It’s also a time where some of the world’s biggest super brands – Google, Amazon and Netflix, for example – don’t actually have a physical presence in the real world.

“The whole industry has shifted. Brands are now seeing the value in giving people an experience in which they can participate.”

Sarah Trumble, Circus

It’s something Amazon is remedying with its launch of actual brick-and-mortar stores, but each with a twist. Seattle’s Amazon Go is the world’s first check-out-free shop, where customers’ purchases are tracked by cameras and sensors, and they’re automatically billed via credit card. Amazon has also launched another store in New York, stocked only with goods boasting an online rating of four stars or more.

Brave is better

In fact, it’s these brands with a taste for the unconventional that have led the charge when it comes to experiential marketing. Back in 1886, Coca-Cola offered free samples of its product to build its popularity. This was unusual for its time and the strategy worked – around one of every nine Americans had enjoyed a free drink by the time the campaign ended, and we all know what became of Coca-Cola after that…

In the 1980s, Adidas was in trouble, so its then owner Bernard Tapie decided to take some drastic action. He gave sneakers away to rappers in what was arguably the first majorly successful guerrilla marketing campaign. It was an unconventional move that brought the brand some serious street cred, with Run DMC’s 1986 record ‘My Adidas’ representing the first ever endorsement deal between a rap group and a sports company.

It’s this element of surprise that’s the thread that runs through successful experiential marketing. The same applies to the trend of pop-up stores that emerged in the 2000s, now a fixture in many brands’ marketing arsenals, but, at the time, representing a radical move to encourage consumers to interact with brands in a novel way.

Bompas & Parr certainly love a good surprise. This food-focused agency was responsible for the upside-down banquet, has recreated architectural wonders with jelly, and built a pink waterfall in central London this year – delighting consumers by taking them out of their everyday lives with its eccentric whimsy.

And Red Bull has made some of the most radical marketing moves yet. In its 2012, Stratos campaign, Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner set the world record for the highest skydive of 128,100 feet. Red Bull placed Baumgartner in a capsule and sent him to space, then streamed the entire event and raked in the highest viewing traffic – more than eight million – of any live stream ever broadcast on YouTube.

Sense of adventure

“All our senses interact in a way that influences our emotions and our attention,” says consumer psychologist Carolyn Mair and author of The Psychology of Fashion. “And if it’s a novelty, we’ll remember it more, too.”

“All our senses interact in a way that influences our emotions and our attention – if something’s a novelty, we’ll remember it more.”

Carolyn Mair

Mair explains that, as humans, we are drawn to novelty because something new can be seen as a danger or a threat, so we’re on high alert. “We need to pay attention,” she says, which will be music to a marketer’s ears.

Mair’s focus is on the fashion industry and she says she’s seen a rise in the investment in spectacle for consumers, particularly when it comes to fashion shows. “Unless there’s something striking about the show, we won’t remember it,” she says, citing the example of Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel show this year that was held on a beach in the south of France. “We can all imagine being on the beach, and holidays are something that really get our attention. I think they did this really well here.”

Trumble agrees that it’s essential for the experience to resonate with its intended audience in an authentic way. “If I talk to any brand these days, their first question is: ‘how do we talk to millennials?’ Millennials are not interested in being sold to, but experiences really play to that sweet spot of being able to engage. Experiences that are authentic and true to the brand. You can’t just put something on for the sake of it, otherwise people will see through what you’re doing.”

Power to the people

For Helen Collerton, executive producer at production company Parable, success comes when you put the subject at the heart of the story, both physically and neurologically. Parable uses the latest in VR technology to build fully immersive experiences for consumers. In 2017, the company produced trailers for BBC Three’s One Deadly Weekend in America, which were VR experiences of a real-world environment ending with a dramatic encounter with a shooter, so you felt like you were part of the story the program was telling.

“I think experiential marketing is the next turn of the wheel from branded content. Branded content was about brands having a voice rather than just a product. It was about starting a conversation with consumers rather than just shouting at them,” says Collerton.

“It’s about taking the conversation further and making the audience an active participant. Give your consumer agency and importance by turning them into the protagonist.”

— Helen Collerton, Parable

“With experiential and VR, it’s taking that conversation further and making the audience an active participant. You can do that by event-based marketing, but immersion and virtual reality is really a perfect forum to do that. You can create the illusion of giving your consumer so much agency and importance because you turn them into the protagonist.”

According to Freeman’s report, Asia is leading the charge in adopting these new technologies. It found that 42 percent of Asian marketers tap into sensory interaction as a way to personalize brand experience, compared to 28 percent in North America and 13 percent in Western Europe.

It’s a brave new world for brands, especially those brave enough to embrace this new world with open arms. “Brands can still be a bit nervous about how to invest in experiential,” says Trumble. “I’d say bring your [experiential] team in as soon as you can because it might flip how you structure your marketing plans. If you put the experience at the heart of what you’re doing it can amplify through all the channels. You’ve got to do it properly.”

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