Op-Ed Rebuttal: Why Experience Marketing Will Never Die

By Kiran Aditham 


Well, touché. In case you need a refresher, less than a month ago, we received our usual monthly op-ed from Huge, this time from Andrew Kessler, founder/CEO of Togather, a startup out of Huge Labs. Kessler, whose Togather operation serves as a platform that helps clients deploy event marketing programs with “the same control and measurability of a digital ad buy,” seemed to have sounded the death knell for experience marketing. Well, someone has taken issue, namely Eric Murphy, former VP of marketing/promotions at RCA Records who’s now head of his own experiential/music marketing agency, Pop2Life. Murphy has taken some issue with Kessler’s piece as you’ll see below. Carry on, sir.

“The ‘experience marketing’ trend is close to extinction.” -Andrew Kessler, founder/CEO of Togather


I’ll be honest. When I first caught wind of Kessler’s Op-Ed piece, I wanted to punch him in the face. After all, he was basically labeling the very thing that’s made my agency successful a joke … a waste of time and money. Or more specifically, nothing more
than a “dazzling physical installation,” heavy on pointless, big-budget items like “colored lights, a giant logo,” lots of “freebie swag,” and little more to measure success than a fuzzy count of gift bags and “total impressions.”

So I put on a Jason mask™, gathered a few key clients, and headed over to Kessler’s house with a truck full of colored lights and giant logos.

Just kidding.

Actually, I channeled that initial surge of outrage into some deeper thinking about how and why someone as intelligent and successful as Andrew Kessler would conclude that the best possible outcome of experience marketing was “a large crowd … lots of
product interest … [and] photo albums of smiling fans.” (Which frankly is what a lot of brands hope to accomplish with the majority of their marketing efforts, experiential or otherwise. More on that later.)

To be fair, Kessler posed some worthwhile questions regarding the value and impact of experience marketing campaigns:

-“Are we providing the right kind of value to give us a return on brand favorability?

-“What kind of action did this drive?

-“Can we deliver an experience that also lives beyond the actual event?”

All of these are excellent questions. Every marketer worth their weight in swag should apply them to every marketing investment they make. Still, proclaiming the pending extinction of a species [of marketing] that, when done right, checks off all four boxes of the ubiquitous “AIDA” acronym (Awareness | Interest | Desire | Action)  with a big fat marker seems … well … a bit un-evolved.

Here’s why.

1. Experience Marketing breaks the schema (what the hell is a schema?)

Let’s start with the obvious, undeniable facts. Most brands aren’t competing with other brands or businesses or products anymore. They’re competing with clutter. They’re competing for attention. They’re competing for “mindshare.”

The average American adult spends an astounding 5 hours and nine minutes a day using digital media — not including television.

Consider how many bits and bytes and emails and tweets and status updates and blog posts and instant messages and “viral” videos that equals. Not to mention how many brand messages, ads and promotions (most poorly targeted) are hitting you in the face virtually every step of the way. When there’s a wealth of information and a poverty of attention, and dozens of screens from palm-size to stadium size are beckoning you to  “Like! Follow! Pin! Share! Tag! Tweet! Subscribe! Buy!” … the easiest, most evolutionarily astute thing to do is to ignore them all. They’ve become a schema.

Which is why a well-executed experience that taps into your senses, your emotions, and creates vivid memories and powerful, positive associations doesn’t just deliver a solid “return on brand favorability.” It turns the proverbial needle in a haystack into a
genuine beacon of branding. It makes you lean in. It makes the stuff you love BIG and RELEVANT. It grabs your attention because it speaks RIGHT TO YOU in ways that access all five senses and goes beyond the incessant stream of ‘me me me’ noise.

2. Experiences create PASSION (aka LOVE).

Passion has become an overused word. Yet it’s the most appropriate word to describe exactly what it means: a strong, barely controllable emotion. Passion is the reason why people camp out in wretched weather conditions to get tickets to a Coldplay show. Passion increases heart rates, influences decisions, and drives action like nothing else.

And passion is precisely what smart experience marketing campaigns tap into to drive action, deliver value, and extend the experience itself far beyond the actual “marketing event”.

The keyword here is well-executed. Because what Kessler was pointing to in his Op-Ed piece was the fact that too often, experiential marketing campaigns fail to embody to basic tenets of what marketing is supposed to do:

1. Create Awareness (of a product, brand, etc)

2. Generate Interest (draw the target audience in, in other words, with the promise of fulfilling a want or need, solving a problem, or somehow improving their lives)

3. Create Desire (by making an emotional connection to what people need, want, and love)

4. Inspire Action (by making it ridiculously easy for your target audience to do exactly what you want them to — while making it feel like you’re doing exactly what they want you to do)

It’s not easy to create passion and hit all of those tenets with ANY kind of marketing campaign. But I’m hard-pressed to imagine a billboard, TV or radio ad, website, or other traditional marketing tactic that can compete with a unique (on brand, on target) experience.

Our Cartoon Network @ Atlantis summer and  HGTV #lovemusic Lodge at CMA Fest have been successful enough that they’re now annual activations. Massively successful clients like AMC (Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, Mad Men), Clear Channel Media +
Entertainment, Food Network and Atlantis Paradise Island have come back to us time and time again because they’ve seen tangible (amazing) results from our pop culture powered BEEPs (Branded Entertainment, Events + Promotions).

These are examples of brands showing their “fans” that they understand them … that they speak their language and share their PASSION. These are experiences that draw consumers into an environment that feels authentic and disarming. They accept (and welcome) the underlying marketing message because it’s not thrown in their face — it’s integrated into an experience that they are enjoying. These experiences break down walls between the brand and consumer. These experiences turn weary consumers into an army of loyal  fans dying to brag about it to their friends.

In the words of my father, Richard Branson, “Everyone likes to have fun and to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”  OK, he’s not really my father.

Now that I’ve cooled down a bit, I’m glad I didn’t charge over to Kessler’s place wearing a Jason mask™ and carrying a giant box of LED lights. That would have been awkward and probably would’ve gotten me arrested.

But more importantly, I’m glad his proclamation helped me give voice to what our clients have known for years: Experience Marketing isn’t just about gimmicks or free swag or food trucks or colored lights any more than the Internet is just about Ryan Gosling memes, Facebook likes, and YouPorn. It’s about creating an unforgettable experience catered to a specific target audience
that not only meets the business and marketing objectives of the brand, but enables the participants to form lasting, positive associations with that brand.

Because in the end, people don’t buy “products” or “features”; they don’t fall in love with brands because they have the most Facebook fans, and they are numb to the endless barrage of advertising shoved into their face at every turn. People respond when they experience something that sparks genuine emotion.

Maybe what Kessler was really trying to say is that a lot of brands jumped on the “Experience Marketing” band wagon, not really understanding how to create a great experience that actually transforms consumers into fans. That I can agree with. But let’s
not throw the baby out with the bath water (unless of course that baby is carrying some useless freebie swag).