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Experience Counts: Experiential programs fuel consumer desire to connect with a brand’s personality

  • August 25 2014

Illustration: Bratislav Milenkovic

Brands looking to make a deeper connection with consumers are turning to an old maxim: learn from experience.

Experiential marketing, once an afterthought to mainstream ad campaigns, is now emerging as the backbone to a growing number of branding plans. In an increasingly digital world, consumers are getting a chance to touch, feel and respond to products personally, and live, face-to-face events are being used to entertain, educate and create the kind of emotional stickiness that brands crave.

The end result? Experiential campaigns are fueling word of mouth, providing fodder for social media feeds and becoming the foundation of PR and content marketing programs.

As Michael Shea, vp of creative and strategic planning for experiential agency TEAM Enterprises, put it: “At the end of the day, everyone just wants to do something.”

That explains why brand marketers have been steadily increasing their spending on experiential programs. According to the 2014 EventTrack study conducted by the Event Marketing Institute, the average event budget will increase 5.4 percent in 2014. The reason is clear when looking at the return brands are getting on their experiential and event investments—62 percent of brands participating in the EventTrack study are getting a better than two-to-one return and 14 percent say it is greater than five-to-one.

Consider the number of high-profile brands that have turned to experiences to fuel their mainstream marketing efforts. Purina set up a cat café in New York City to draw attention to its 28-day challenge campaign, while Meow Mix got people to record its well-known jingle (see sidebar). Oreo set up a 3-D printer to turn out customized cookies at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive. Coke’s offbeat vending machines have built the buzz for its Open Happiness efforts. Designer brands like Marc Jacobs are using pop-up stores to draw attention during Fashion Week. It’s impossible to go to a festival or fair that doesn’t have multiple brands doing something experiential to grab attendee attention.

Energizer’s Schick Hydro 5 brand created an activation at this summer’s Comic-Con in San Diego, pairing its razors with promotions taking place for the latest version of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed video game. The game takes place during the French Revolution, and the publisher got significant publicity for its parkour-themed obstacle course. But once gamers had run the course, they could lie under a guillotine and get a shave and full towel service, courtesy of Schick.

Beyond providing the luxury of a barber-style shave, Schick’s goal was to generate the kind of one-on-one experience that would generate word of mouth and social chatter, amplifying the reach of the event. Shaves were provided for more than 200 people and some 2,000 razors were given away. Photos were taken pre- and post-shave and booth personnel did exit interviews. The event went viral quickly on social media, with its hashtag trending in second place on the first day of Comic-Con—no small feat considering the numerous branded events and launches going on.

Matt Rader, director, men’s systems at Schick, says experiential events are helping to change the perception of the brand. “I spent years working on Capitol Hill,” he explained. “In politics you win one handshake at a time. We believe marketing is best imprinted in feeling and emotion. So [with our experiential event] we were metaphorically connecting consumers with the brand with a digital handshake.”

That’s similar to the approach taken by Shell Lubricants when it used the South by Southwest conference to launch a new Pennzoil brand. It may not seem like motor oil and technology go together, but the company partnered with Nintendo, which was premiering a new version of its Mario Kart franchise, to create an experience called Mario Karting Reimagined. Using RFID technology and kart-mounted GoPro cameras, drivers were virtually immersed in the Nintendo game. As they drove over “power-ups” on the track, the cars would respond as they would in the video game. Developed by Pennzoil’s agencies JWT Atlanta, Coyne PR and MediaCom ESP, the event also gave participants cartoonized videos of their races to share on social media.

“The first metrics we looked at were from the PR side. We generated about 600 [press] stories and 90 percent of them were outside of our usual automotive category,” said Chris Hayek, Pennzoil’s global brand director. “We also had nearly one billion impressions.” While Hayek couldn’t put a specific dollar figure on increased sales, he explained that the event drove the equivalent of a $2 million ad at a lower cost.

“If the experience is engaging and memorable, attendees will want to share it with friends and family across their social channels,” said James Riseborough, president of Turtle Transit, which creates mobile marketing vehicles and interactive displays and exhibits for a wide range of well-known brands. “While ‘socially fueled’ content is incredibly important, consumers still crave interaction in the physical live experience as well.”

The challenge for many firms is to put metrics against their experiential activations. According to the 2014 EventTrack study, 78 percent of brands say they are measuring their programs, up from 71 percent in 2013. But what exactly should they be measuring? Certainly, the goal is to increase sales, but given the preponderance of social media elements, companies now frequently look at other factors such as reach, brand lift and even the emotional impact on consumers.

Shoe manufacturer Vionic went for the emotional component with its June experiential marketing program on the Santa Monica pier, sponsoring a fitness series and creating a booth that encouraged people to “break up” with their current flip-flops. “We took the campaign to a health-minded group,” explained Lisa Bazinet, the company’s vp of marketing, noting that the company hosted an Instagram station that included fun props to support the brand’s positioning.

While Vionic had to rely on visual assessments of its booth visitors, other marketers that are turning to technology for metrics that can confirm a participant’s engagement, says W. Robert Gabsa, director of business leadership at Momentum Worldwide.

“We’re looking at the ability to attach a device to an event goer’s wrist as they go through the experience,” he said. The device measures heart rate and temperature so marketers can determine very authentically if a person is stressed, relaxed, frightened or happy. “You can ask people all day, ‘What do you think of this product?’ and if you are giving them something for free, they are probably going to tell you it’s awesome, but with a bracelet attached to them, you’re going to know if it’s true,” he added. Eye tracking devices can also help marketers see what, specifically, about a product is exciting and whether attendees are truly engaged with it and the brand.

The ultimate in experiential technology is anything that can help convert an experience into a sale, says Matt Brown, director of digital at Legacy Marketing Partners, an experiential firm that works with Absolut, GE and Office Depot, among others. He singled out delivery apps such as Postmates and Drizly, which can be linked to an event to give consumers a chance to order and receive a product they’ve just sampled. “You click a button and the product is on the way to your house,” he said. “That’s something we’re hoping will help the CMO see how many people an event touched and created sales right away.”

Others still see events as a way to create buzz. When Austin, Texas-based software firm Bigcommerce opened a new office in San Francisco, it built a high-profile event around its efforts to recruit area programmers. Using the poaching theme, it went out to the corporate shuttle stops provided by Google and Facebook and served about 450 poached egg sandwiches and 500 cups of coffee to the tech companies’ commuters. The experience was designed to show how the company took care of its own employees as well as gain attention to the fledgling brand.

“With this event we could measure conversions on site and look at conversations that were happening in real time,” said Erin Mills, COO at event marketing company Michael Alan Group, which oversaw the program.

The event bowed to impressive results. By the evening of the first #poached event, the company saw a 150 percent increase in applications. Other significant metrics: 94 percent of visitors to the company’s site that came in from the Bay Area were new, and there were more than 5,000 social shares totaling 30 million potential views.

Still, it ultimately comes down to creating an emotional attachment with the consumer. “If we can activate a person’s emotions and get them connected to the brand, that’s what we want,” said Greg Bogue, vp of experience design for event and meeting producer Maritz Travel Company. “We want them to tell the story that the company is incredible and I will do anything to remain a part of this experience.”



Millennials Want Experiences


Millennials may be digital natives, but they love live experiences. It’s part of the changing expectations that generation has about marketing—they want their brands to have a personality, according to research from BCG. And they’re more likely to align with brands that interact with them one-on-one.

“Experiential marketing is not just passing out premiums in front of a trailer,” noted John Stewart, managing director of Scouting Works. “Young people want to use a product and [have] a really deep experience with the brands.”

That is extending into the multicultural space as well. Brands that are targeting Hispanics are turning to events to reach the younger demographic, explains Elena Sotomayor, vp of event marketing and business development for Cardenas Marketing Group. “The real growth is for the Hispanic millennial; it’s huge for all brands.”



Meow, Meow, Meow, Meow…


“I’m doing this for my cat!” That was the cry heard from the line at New York’s Columbus Circle on the afternoon of August 13 for the Meow Mix mobile sound booth.

One of the most iconic TV ad jingles became the basis for experiential marketing, as animal lovers had chance to put their own spin on the Meow Mix song and record it live with the help of a DJ, a professional mic and plenty of cameras.

For every unique version performed, Meow Mix donated 100 meals for hungry cats to the Food Bank for New York City. That’s what got Chessa Metz and Tony Jenkins from Winston-Salem, N.C., meowing. Those that required a little more motivation to belt out some meows could get in the line to sing a duet with country music artist Kellie Pickler.