The Search for the Ultimate Brand Experience

What makes some brand experiences so great? So unforgettable that they become the standard against which marketers evaluate their own brand experiences for years to come? So successful that consumers and shoppers forge a new bond with the brand, causing unprecedented buzz and sales in the marketplace?

These are the questions that shape the Effie Awards’ new Brand Experience competitive category. The move to be more inclusive of nontraditional forms of advertising is clearly in step with marketing in general as companies recognize the importance of creating deeper consumer and shopper engagement. Research powerfully supports that it takes more than TV and print ads to maximize brand participation, drive consumers to the point of purchase, wherever that may be, and ignite a viral buzz. Marketers must agree, as Brand Experience was the most-entered category in the entire Effie competition.

While the category may be new this year, there are many excellent examples of successful brand experiences that have deservedly garnered attention, such as Burger King’s advergame Sneak King and the 7-Elevens turned into Simpsons-styled Kwik-E-Marts. These cases have several factors in common. First, they are true to and ownable by the brand while creating proprietary content and/or products. Secondly, the experiences are engaging. They excite, delight and surprise a target audience that is drawn to participate again and again, becoming co-creators with the brand and enrolling others in their own involvement.

That the Brand Experience category could also serve to contemporize the image of the Effies becomes obvious when considering where judging was held in order to turn the event itself into, well, an experience — the somewhat famous New York apartment of Cindy Gallop, the former U.S. chairwoman of BBH. The space is the converted locker room of the first YMCA in the U.S. Cindy’s brief for the space was: “At night, I want to feel like I’m at a Shanghai nightclub.” The architect proposed that she live inside a black-lacquered Chinese box and designed what is known as the “black apartment.” All the walls are painted black in order to prominently feature Cindy’s large art and artifact collection, including a Gucci chain saw and gold-plated alligator.

The team of 10 marketing and agency professionals got down to work with Carl Johnson, co-founder of Anomaly and chairman of Effies Worldwide. While our primary charge was to judge the effectiveness of the ideas presented, Johnson also said we would later be encouraged to engage in an inquiry about what it takes to create a great brand experience. He then set the judges on their way to read the seven finalist cases, each of which was accompanied by a four-minute video.

What followed was a lively discussion to determine who would win gold, silver or bronze Effie trophies.

While my fellow judges agreed on the cases that rose to the top, they were certain that there was no agreed-upon definition as to what a brand experience is or should be. Most only agreed as to what was not a great brand experience. Many argued that examples lacked the power to sustain consumer engagement as a result of too few touch points, or didn’t take on a viral life of their own, or were simply glorified events or promotions. Others were disappointed by expensive productions that they believed could not have delivered an acceptable ROI, while a few longed to see new and interesting metrics to guide decisions and prove effectiveness. Finally, there were cases with creative ideas that seemed to fall short on at least one dimension; some were not perceived as directly relevant to the chosen target audience, while others did not seem to be breakthrough. Most of the judges believed that few of the cases satisfied all the necessary criteria, including an insightful strategy, a new creative idea and an effective effort. A long debate ensued that raised more questions than answers for what makes a great brand experience.

Interestingly enough, the winning ideas seem to actually re-create the brand itself and bring it right to the doorstep of target consumers who want to make it a part of their lives. The U.S. Army, along with agency partner Ignited, won for Virtual Army Experience, and Xbox/Halo 3 was recognized with agency partners McCann Erickson, Universal McCann and contributing partner MRM. In both cases, young men and women had such positive yet surprising interactions that most discussed a new and improved relationship with the brand while some said they would consider enlisting.

So, what does it take to be the ultimate in brand experience? Frank Striefler, head of media arts planning at TBWA\Chiat\Day, suggests that great experiences are those that get people to “invite the brand into their lives vs. interrupting what people are interested in.” Brian Gies, vp, marketing impact at Burger King Brands, feels that when it’s a great idea, consumers “adapt it by continuing to spread interest on their own and proactively participating.” Ralph Santana, vp of colas at Pepsi, believes that the ultimate experience will “evolve with technology” in a way that really “enables companies to deliver” on these life-involving experiences.

Doug Jaeger, founder, CEO and cd of thehappycorp, says that “good ones increase your heartbeat . . . great brand experiences should change your life.” Finally, Greg Andersen, head of engagement planning at BBH, adds, “The competition isn’t other brands in their category. Competition is life. That’s the bar we are trying to compete with.” 

Marta LaRock, evp, director of strategic planning at TracyLocke, is a judge of this year’s Effie Awards. She can be reached at Marta.LaRock@tracylocke.com.

Related: “Omnicom, DDB Lead Effie Parade”